While they were beaten twice by their fellow countrymen in front of two sell-out crowds, and only accumulated six points from a possible 15 between the end of December and the start of the New Year, the side from the North West of Italy showcased their intention to be the best team in the country in each of their last three encounters.
While their performances and results throughout the season so far show they perhaps still have a long way to go before they achieve that feat, their displays – both at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi and in Treviso – demonstrated an evolved playing style and more vivid imagination.
The first encounter – a 13-8 home defeat – saw a very well-controlled performance from Zebre that, at times, Michael Bradley’s men truly dominated.
— Zebre Rugby Club 🦓 (@ZebreRugby) January 7, 2020
Zebre forced Benetton to make 166 tackles (against a mere 45) and pick up three yellow cards, while they dominated over 80 per cent of both possession (81%) and territory (87%) in the first half. Yet, largely due to their disappointing kicking display, the Parma-based outfit were left with a solitary bonus point.
One-week later Zebre were agonisingly beaten by Kieran Crowley’s men in Treviso, with last season’s quarter-finalists – who were forced to play with 14 men for the best part of an hour – clinging on for the win despite being largely controlled by their opponents in a way we have rarely seen before.
While those two performances yielded little, a first-ever win over Toyota Cheetahs provided a strong statement to see in the New Year. Inspired by the brilliant work of Giovanni Licata, Johan Meyer and the boot of Carlo Canna, the Italians powered to a breath-taking success on home soil.
The victory marked only Zebre’s second Guinness PRO14 win this season – and they are still second-bottom of Conference A with 14 points – but both triumphs have broken new ground in the last six weeks, with a win against Dragons their first at Rodney Parade.
But while Zebre may have enjoyed their recent success, Benetton’s run to the Final Series last season – and their new-found status as one of the competition’s elite teams – should not be overestimated. They are certainly feared, watched and worried about these days.
With that reputation must come increased standards in terms of execution and discipline – neither of which we saw in the two games against Zebre, while too many missed chances cost them in their most recent defeat at home to Glasgow Warriors.
The leading Italian outfit must once again rise to the heights they enjoyed last season, and start playing at much higher standards across the park if they want to maintain their status for which they fought so valiantly.