Last season was something of an exercise in futility for Zebre and Dragons but a new campaign brings fresh hope and both will be confident of kick-starting things at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi on Saturday.
Zebre finished bottom of Conference A in 2018/19, while Dragons came sixth in Conference B and they were the only two sides in the Guinness PRO14 to score fewer than 52 tries – notching 35 and 37 respectively.
Even combining their final points totals wouldn’t have been enough to climb out of the Conference A cellar, while the new season also began somewhat inauspiciously as the Italian side lost 50-15 away to Edinburgh and the Welshmen went down 39-9 at Munster.
Yet hope springs eternal and with new coach Dean Ryan at the helm, the Dragons will be eager to end a four-and-a-half-year run without an away win in the Championship, while Michael Bradley is blooding plenty of exciting young talent at Zebre.
Kick-off: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma | 17:00 UK (18:00 local), Saturday 5 October
How to watch: Live on DAZN, FreeSports, eir Sport 2
Players to watch out for: George Biagi (Zebre), Harrison Keddie (Dragons)
In a youthful Zebre squad, the experience of stalwart George Biagi could prove pivotal in ensuring that cool heads prevail.
The veteran lock has 23 Italy caps to his name and will make his 108th appearance for Zebre, while also taking the record for most appearances as captain when he pulls on the armband for the 52nd time.
With 11 of Bradley’s 23 having two or fewer appearances for the Parma-based outfit, that veteran nous will be vital in pursuit of a first win, in any competition, since December 2018.
Dragons prop Ryan Bevington will pass a landmark of his own – as the former Welsh international makes his 100th Guinness PRO14 appearance – but it’s one of his teammates who is the man to watch.
Bullocking back-rower Harrison Keddie returns from injury to slot into the No.8 jersey with his mobility and impressive ball-carrying, that has seen him play 7s rugby for Dragons in the past, a useful weapon in the Welshmen’s arsenal.
Key stat: Zebre have not won since beating Enisei in the European Challenge Cup in December 2018, while Dragons have won only once in 2019 in the Guinness PRO14: 34-32 over Scarlets at ‘Judgement Day’ in Round 21 last season.
Zebre: Massimo Cioffi, Charlie Walker, James Elliott, Enrico Lucchin, Pierre Bruno, Michelangelo Biondelli, Joshua Renton; Danilo Fischetti, Marco Manfredi, Alexandru Tarus, Mick Kearney, George Biagi (c), Iacopo Bianchi, Johan Meyer, Giovanni Licata
Replacements: Massimo Ceciliani, Daniele Rimpelli, Giosué Zilocchi, Samuele Ortis, Apisai Tauyavuca, Nicolò Casilio, Leonardo Mantelli, Federico Mori
Dragons: Jordan Williams, Will Talbot-Davies, Tyler Morgan, Jack Dixon, Owen Jenkins, Sam Davies, Rhodri Williams (c); Ryan Bevington, Richard Hibbard, Leon Brown, Joe Davies, Matthew Screech, Lewis Evans, Taine Basham, Harrison Keddie
Replacements: Rhys Lawrence, Brok Harris, Lloyd Fairbrother, Max Williams, Huw Taylor, Tavis Knoyle, Jacob Botica, Adam Warren
Owen Jenkins scored two tries as Dragons ended a four-and-a half-year wait for an away win in the Guinness PRO14 with a bonus-point victory at 14-man Zebre.
Charlie Walker – signed from Harlequins in the summer – was sent off on his Zebre debut for two yellow card offences and the away side took full advantage to secure their first win under director of rugby Dean Ryan.
Rhodri Williams, Jenkins (2), Jordan Williams, Taine Basham and Harrison Keddie all crossed, while they also benefited from a penalty try.
For a side yet to win in 2019, Zebre were full of confidence from the get-go, with speed to the breakdown and a zip to their passing.
And that fearless approach paid dividends on the scoreboard, with Jacopo Bianchi crossing after just seven minutes before his fellow back row Giovanni Licata followed minutes later.
Michelangelo Biondelli scored with both conversions to put them 14-0 to the good but the Dragons immediately hit back courtesy of a penalty try.
Jenkins was found by Jack Dixon’s floated pass on the left wing but he was tackled in the air just two metres out by Walker, leaving the referee with a simple choice.
Walker was also sent to the sin-bin and the Dragons took advantage, with scrum-half Rhodri Williams burrowing over from a few metres out. Sam Davies kicked both conversions to level the score.
The Welsh side controlled territory and possession for the rest of the half and thought they took the lead when openside flanker Basham spotted a gap and burst through from ten metres out.
However, referee Sean Gallagher brought play back for an infringement and Zebre took advantage of their stroke of fortune by going up the other end with the last play of the half and scoring through scrum-half Joseph Renton.
Zebre’s joy was short-lived though, with Walker sent off just 31 seconds after the re-start for a second yellow-card offence, and Dragons took full advantage, with Jenkins intercepting a loose pass and powering through unopposed to score.
With momentum now with them, Dragons upped the tempo and struck again five minutes later through Jordan Williams’ brilliant score.
Sam Davies nudged them further ahead with a penalty, before Jenkins grabbed his second with a simple touchdown in the corner and Basham and Keddie added further scores.
Any side that scores more than 50 points on the road has a number of contenders for the gong, but few will begrudge wing Owen Jenkins walking away with the honour.
The Welshman terrorised opposite number Charlie Walker – who lasted just 41 minutes before being sent off – and ended with two tries.
There are a few contenders here but Jordan Williams’ score was a thing of beauty, the full-back weaving in and out on his way from his own half to the tryline.
Cardiff City Stadium will play host to the 2020 Guinness PRO14 Final on June 20 as one of the most exciting days in the club rugby calendar comes to Wales!
General sale tickets are available from http://bit.ly/PRO14Cardiff2020 and prices start at just £13 for concessions and £26 for adults (subject to booking fees), that’s a 15% early bird discount. Family ticket (2 adults / 2 children) prices begin at £64 and fans are encouraged to buy early to get the best value tickets.