Tears of joy amid double delight
What a weekend for Italian rugby!
First, Zebre Parma ended their 22-match losing run in the BKT URC with a 12-10 win over the Hollywoodbets Sharks on a night of tears and high emotion at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
And then Benetton Rugby triumphed 20-17 against the DHL Stormers - finalists for the past two years - in a titanic tussle out in Treviso to stand alone as the only unbeaten team after the opening four rounds of matches.
Zebre hadn’t tasted victory in the league since April 2022 and that was reflected by the scenes on the final whistle in Parma, as defence coach Richard Hodges recounts.
“It was wild. There were grown men crying,” he said.
“The first person I saw was George Biagi, who is our director of rugby operations. He was just in tears and the girls who work in the office likewise.
“The kit man was hugging everybody, saying thank you with tears streaming down his face.
“It was just such a relief because this group has just been battered for a season and a half.
“There are a lot of players in our squad who have been there 18 months, two years, and had never ever won a game.
“They didn’t know what to do. They got in the changing room and they were trying to find a song to sing!
“So there was a lot of emotion. It was good to see and quite humbling. Finally that cloud is lifted.
“It was just a release of emotion and that monkey is off the back now, so it means we can crack on.
“It’s been coming. It’s about changing perceptions and I think in these early games we have done that. We are beginning to get some respect back and that’s what it’s all about.”
All of Zebre’s points came via the boot, with full-back Geronimo Prisciantelli landing three kicks at goal and wing Jacopa Trulla also on target.
Outlining the key factors behind the victory, Hodges said: “We only gave three penalties away in the whole game. We were extremely well disciplined and finally we were a good version of what I want us to be defensively.
“But the big difference between the two teams was our kick strategy. We won the aerial battle hands down.”
Next up, it’s Cardiff Rugby in Parma on Friday night, a fixture which will have real resonance for Hodges as he spent a decade on the coaching staff at the Arms Park before heading for northern Italy this summer.
“That will be a nice one,” he said.
“I have had a stream of text messages from Rey Lee Lo taking the mickey and saying they are ready for us!
“I am going out for dinner with Matt Sherratt on Thursday night. It will be good to catch up with him. He is the best coach I have ever worked with and a good mate.”
Hodges concluded: “Last year, Zebre got 11 league points in the whole season.
“So we have set ourselves a target of trying to get those 11 points in the first five games because four of them are at home.
“We have already got nine, so our aim is to get at least two against Cardiff.”
As for Benetton, their game against the Stormers was a real harum-scarum, helter skelter affair with both teams throwing caution to the wind as the contest became increasingly open.
Ultimately, it was a wonderfully worked try, finished off by replacement flanker Alessandro Izekor, that proved the match winner, with the hosts holding firm in the frantic final exchanges to emerge as the only side yet to taste defeat this season.
Disappointing weekend for Welsh rugby
It was a weekend to forget for the Welsh regions, with all four teams losing at home - but it could have been such a different story.
Both the Scarlets and Ospreys were leading with less than five minutes to go against the Emirates Lions and Glasgow Warriors respectively, only to concede late scores.
Scarlets head coach Dwayne Peel was particularly frustrated at the 24-23 defeat to the Lions given his team were in front for virtually the entire match.
“We are bitterly disappointed because it was a game we had in the bag,” said the former Wales scrum-half.
“For large parts we were the better side, but we had a few basic fundamental errors and we were not accurate in the last 10 minutes.
“We only have ourselves to blame and it is four points that have gone begging.”
As for the Ospreys, they went in front with just seven minutes left on the clock through a fifth successful kick from fly-half Jack Walsh, but ended up without even a losing bonus point as a Duncan Weir penalty and a final play converted try from Allan Dell made it 31-23 to Glasgow.
Head coach Toby Booth said: “Sport can be cruel and sometimes you don’t get what you deserve. It’s a tough pill to swallow.
“Glasgow are a very good side, but they didn’t do anything we didn’t expect. For 75 minutes we more than matched that, so we’re not going to thrash ourselves over this loss.
“We just didn’t nail those key moments when we had the chance early on.”
Cardiff Rugby had plentiful opportunities to beat the Vodacom Bulls at the Arms Park on Friday night only for a succession of crucial handling errors to cost them dear as they went down 18-12.
However head coach Matt Sherratt took a lot out of his team’s performance against the new league leaders, saying: “That’s the best we have played this season. I was really proud of the players’ efforts and their intent.
“I have got a blueprint in my mind that is a Cardiff performance and it looked a lot like that.”
In the final game of the weekend, the Dragons RFC went down 33-10 to Leinster at Rodney Parade, with Wales back row forward Taine Basham red carded for an elbow to the head of fly-half Ross Byrne.
Stockdale’s stock steadily rising
Ulster try machine Jacob Stockdale has hailed his team’s 21-14 victory over reigning champions Munster as the kind of game you never forget.
The Irish international winger went over for his fourth try of the season to spark the home side’s revival in front of a near 15,000 crowd at the Kingspan Stadium.
Munster had sped into a 14-3 lead with two touchdowns from scrum-half Craig Casey in the opening quarter, but Stockdale’s riposte cut the deficit to six points at half-time.
Then, after drawing level through the boot of Neil Doak, Ulster went ahead when No 8 Nick Timoney profited from a powerful scrum drive and they held on in the closing stages to consign the title holders to their first defeat of the campaign.
Speaking after the game, the 37-times capped Stockdale, who is getting back to his predatory best, said: “That’s an incredible win, to be honest.
“Obviously Munster are a really, really good team with a lot of talented players in there.
“You saw in the first 20 minutes they hammered us physically, but luckily we responded and then kept that going for the rest of the game.
“A win like that, in front of a packed out crowd, those are the games you never forget.”
Stockdale’s try came on 26 minutes as he collected a pinpoint Billy Burns cross-kick on the bounce after a prolonged passage of attacking from Ulster.
“The ball is starting to bounce for me again, which is nice,” he said.
“We are being encouraged to play a really expansive style of rugby and if it’s on we take it.
“Billy saw it really early on and it’s kind of weird, you can make eye contact 60 metres away and you kind of both know.
“Billy has been doing that every single week since he has been here. It was an awesome kick and I was just lucky enough to finish it off.”
Adding his thoughts on the game, Ulster coach Dan McFarland said: “I am really proud of the guys.
“It was an interpro game against the champions. They were unbeaten coming up here. They are a good team, a strong team.
“We obviously started off and gave them access into the game with a couple of uncharacteristic errors and they got 14 points up. We had to battle back from that and that was always going to be difficult against Munster.
“But some of the rugby we played in that middle third of the game was excellent. It would have been nice to tidy it up before the end, but it gave us the opportunity to demonstrate that every inch attitude we have and the defence at the end was absolutely fantastic. So I am really pleased for the guys and very happy to come away with the win.”
Game of the weekend
Edinburgh 25, Connacht 22
You thought the compelling Benetton-DHL Stormers clash was going to take some beating - well, this epic encounter achieved just that.
It had the Hive Stadium absolutely buzzing throughout, right up to the dramatic conclusion.
Connacht were looking to make it four league wins in a row at the start of a season for the first time since 2002 and you had Edinburgh aiming to bounce back from last week’s defeat to Leinster.
Between them, they really delivered - and how.
It all came down to the last minute and the final kick of the game as fly-half Ben Healy slotted a drop goal to snatch back the spoils after Connacht looked to have secured a draw when flanker Cian Prendergast forced his way over five minutes from time.
It was three tries a piece overall, with the pendulum swinging back and forth in a coruscating affair.
Giving his verdict, Edinburgh coach Sean Everitt said: “Every time we scored points we allowed them soft entries into our 22 and we couldn’t keep them out which kept us under the pump, but I just enjoy this team’s resilience and the hard work they put in on the field.
“Last year, they were losing games by one point, two points. This year we are winning them and we are winning them at the death as well. So I am really proud of the boys.
“The more you win the close battles, you build confidence and you build belief and this group needs to believe they can go far in this competition.”
Player of the weekend
Johnny Matthews (Glasgow)
The Liverpool-born hooker is now the leading try scorer in the URC with his brace against the Ospreys taking his tally up to five.
He showed in the early days of his career that he knows his way to the whitewash, touching down 26 times in 29 appearances for Sedgley Park back in 2016–17 and he remains a prolific poacher.
Matthews is a key component in the lineout maul drive that is such a weapon for Glasgow and one which proved the decisive factor against the Ospreys.
He marshalls operations expertly from the back of the moving maul and knows just when to make that crucial final surge for the line.
But he is quick to pass the credit on to his fellow forwards.
“Every week, they do all the graft and I just manage to sit on the back of it and get all the credit,” he said. “The boys up front were class out there.”
Commenting on the bonus point win down in Swansea, he said: “We are really happy. We set a target before the game to come here and get five points. We felt we had maybe left a couple over the last couple of weeks.
“It’s a tough place to come, so to go away with five points is huge. We are delighted with the performance.”
Quote of the weekend
Jake White on a trip to the Welsh capital that culminated in his Vodacom Bulls beating Cardiff Rugby 18-12 at the Arms Park to move to the top of the BKT URC table:
“I love this place. You go into any little pub and it’s got a picture of a rugby player inside. You go into a shopping centre and you see a statue of Gareth Edwards! I saw Gatland’s Gate as well.
“There’s not many places in the world where you get that sort of stuff. It oozes rugby. It’s fantastic to come to this country and this town.”
What’s coming up in Round 5?
New league leaders the Vodacom Bulls face a testing trip to Edinburgh, while Leinster - who have shot up to second after their five-try triumph away to the Dragons - entertain the Scarlets.
There’s a repeat of last season’s grand final, with Munster hosting the DHL Stormers, while there’s the third Welsh derby of the campaign as the Dragons host the Ospreys.
Elsewhere, Zebre Parma will be full of beans when they welcome Cardiff to Parma having broken their long duck, with Ulster facing the Emirates Lions in Belfast.
After playing their first four games on the road, the Sharks are finally back home in Durban and looking for a first win of the season against Connacht.
Finally, third-placed Glasgow will attempt to do what no team has done so far this season - beat Benetton, as the in-form Italians head for Scotstoun on Saturday evening.
By Simon Thomas