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JACKSON COLUMN: Zebre steal the show as Munster make Ulster pay

Guinness PRO12 Rugby Editor

2 Nov 2016

For only the second time in five punishing seasons, the team of the week comes from an Italian city renowned for its ham and the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, writes Peter Jackson.

How appropriate, therefore, that all the big noises in the Guinness PRO12 band should finish playing second, third and fourth fiddle last weekend to the sweet sound of Zebre in full cry. Their victory over Edinburgh at BT Murrayfield deserves a fanfare as surely the single most inspiring result of the season hitherto.

That it happened to be orchestrated by a Scot made the result all the sweeter. George Biagi, born in Irvine to Italian-Scottish parents and educated at Edinburgh’s famous Fettes College, has played all his senior rugby in Italy since going there to study.

To do Zebre full justice, the result needs to be put in a historical perspective.   In 47 away fixtures since superseding Aironi in the Guinness PRO12 five seasons ago, Zebre had lost 45. Their only wins on the road came against Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park on September 20, 2013 and in Treviso last January.

The Guinness PRO12 success in Edinburgh, therefore, was only their second outside Italy. The Milan sports daily, La Gazzetta dello Sport, found space amid their acreage of soccer coverage to acknowledge the achievement.

Edimburgo-Zebre 14-19.   Piede di Canna e Venditti all’ultimo tuffo Prima gioia per le Zebre.

In other words, Carlo Canna’s goalkicking and Giovanbattista Venditti’s late try bring first joy for Zebre. Joy not just for the club but for all neutrals beyond Edinburgh.

Considering some of the beatings they had taken, especially last season, the result was as much a triumph of character as anything for their players under head coach Gianluca Guidi. Two converted second-half Edinburgh tries having wiped out a twelve-point lead, Zebre were heading for another near miss until Venditti struck two minutes from time.

The Italy Test wing had witnessed his club’s last win on foreign soil, at Cardiff three seasons ago, from the bench as an unused substitute. Four of those in action that night in the Welsh capital were there in the Scottish capital – second row Quintin Geldenhuys, No 8 Andries van Schalkwyk, hooker Tommaso D’Apice and the skipper, Biagi, all Italian internationals.

Venditti’s third try of the campaign turned another imminent hard luck story into a win surprising enough to raise eyebrows across the spectrum of the European game.  Zebre have already endured one outrageous slice of ill-fortune in September, thunder and lightning causing the abandonment of their home match against Connacht at half-time when the champions were losing 22-10.

The change they brought about at the bottom coincided with a series of changes at the top.      Ulster went into Round 7 last Friday night perched on top of the table.  Within 24 hours they had dropped to fifth, overtaken by the Warriors, Ospreys, Munster and, finally, Leinster.

As an example of the competitive ferocity of the Guinness PRO12, it will take some beating all season.  Until five minutes from time, Ulster were on course to preserve their lead at the head of a congested queue on the strength of a sixth win from seven starts.

Rory Scannell’s expert drop goal changed that and a great deal more. One sweep of his left foot had a kaleidoscopic effect on the top half of the table, rearranging the landscape in a way which would have made tough viewing for Ulster and their supporters.

A one-point home defeat not only cost them leadership of the Guinness PRO12 but their place in the top four.   Had Paddy Jackson’s 78th minute drop goal not taken the same marginally off-line trajectory as an earlier penalty attempt, Ulster would probably have squeezed through with their home record intact.

In a game of small margins, nowhere are the margins smaller than those between the ancient provincial rivals. Ulster have not won any of their last five duels against Munster and yet they have lost four of them by an average of fewer than two points per match. The fifth, in Belfast last season, was drawn, 23-23.

On a night when they were touched to find a moving tribute to the late Anthony Foley pinned on their dressing-room wall, Munster recovered from conceding two converted tries to reply with two of their own.  Scannell’s drop won the match in the finest Ronan O’Gara tradition.

The sound of gnashing teeth from the vast majority of a sell-out Belfast crowd had barely died down than someone else had taken over at the top. The Warriors’ bonus-point home win over Benetton Treviso allowed them to seize temporary residence at the summit.

Ospreys ensured that they didn’t stay there any longer than overnight, the leading Welsh contenders duly jumping over them by adding five more tries to their bulging collection at the expense of the Dragons. Two more for Keelan Giles took the teenager’s haul to eight in four matches.

Ospreys’ stay turned out to be even shorter than the Warriors’. Leinster, kicking-off a couple of hours later, rounded off an eventful weekend by going top for the first time this season. Like Munster they, too, came from behind in an all-Irish affair, putting an end to Connacht’s four-match winning streak.

With fractionally less than one third of the Guinness PRO12 season gone, only two unbeaten home records remain – at the RDS and the Liberty Stadium in Swansea where Leinster and Ospreys have swept all before them.

All six home teams in Round 8 this weekend – Benetton Treviso (v Cardiff Blues), Edinburgh (v Ulster), Munster (v Ospreys), Dragons (v Connacht), Scarlets (v Warriors) and Zebre (v Leinster) – have lost at least once before their own fans this season.


Home defeats in the Guinness PRO12 this season:

0 – Leinster, Ospreys.

1 – Warriors (v Ulster),

Munster (v Cardiff Blues)

Scarlets  (v Munster)

Ulster (v Munster)

2 – Cardiff Blues (v Leinster and Scarlets),

Connacht (v Warriors and Ospreys)

Edinburgh (v Leinster and Zebre)

Dragons (v Munster and Warriors)

Benetton Treviso (v Ulster and Scarlets)

Winning runs: Leinster 5, Scarlets 4, Warriors 3,

Losing: Dragons 5,Benetton Treviso 3, Blues 3, Ulster 2.

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