History-makers Benetton reach play-offs
PRO14 REPORT: Monty Ioane’s diving finish secured Benetton Rugby a place in the PRO14 Final Series for the first time, as they saw off rivals Zebre with a 25-11 win.
The visitors, bidding to become the first Italian team to qualify, appeared nervous in the first half and only led by six points at the break thanks to tries from Luca Morisi and Toa Halafihi.
But, after surviving an intense spell of Zebre pressure, they took control thanks to scores from the tireless Sebastian Negri and wing Ioane.
The result assured Benetton of third place in Conference B, setting up a Semi-Final Qualifier at Glasgow Warriors or Munster.
Benetton, understandably nervous, made a slow start and spent much of the opening 20 minutes on the back foot, with Zebre dominating territory and possession.
However, they were restricted to just a penalty from fly-half Maicol Azzolini, with their defence – marshalled by the tough Braam Steyn – standing tall.
Eventually, Benetton enjoyed their own period of pressure and it told in the 20th minute when a simple line-out routine ended with flyhalf Tommaso Allan chipping over the charging Zebre defence for the speedy Morisi.
The ball bounced perfectly for the centre, who gathered the ball in one hand and sped to the line to score the first try of the match.
Benetton threatened to take control but Zebre continued to match them and closed the gap to just a point when Azzolini fired through his second mid-range penalty.
Benetton, starting to look a little anxious, scrambled for a second try before half time but they wasted a golden opportunity when Morisi – seeking an unmarked Ioane on the left wing for an easy score – undercooked his pass out left and was intercepted.
However, they would not be denied again and just minutes later Steyn combined with Angelo Esposito to punch through a hole in the defence.
A gap emerged out wide and this time the pass did not miss its mark, with Halafihi planting the ball superbly in the corner.
Zebre, who had scored just seven fewer points this season than their opponents, attacked with intent after the re-start but Benetton’s defence stood firm.
And that resolve paid dividends when they laid siege to the Zebre line before fizzing the ball to left, where Negri gladly accepted Hayward’s looped pass to score.
With that score, the momentum shifted and Benetton upped the ante in search of that decisive fourth try.
And it came off the back of a neat move to the left after Allan again outfoxed Zebre’s rush defence, where Ioane’s athletic finish sent the away supporters wild.
There was time for a late consultation for Mattia Bellini but the day belonged to Benetton.
Pens: Azzolini 2
Tries: Morisi, Halafihi, Negri da Ollegio
Yellow card: Barbini (Benetton, 76)
Zebre: 15 Edoardo Padovani; 14 Mattia Bellini, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Tommaso Boni, 11 James Elliott; 10 Maicol Azzolini, 9 Joshua Renton; 8 Renato Giammarioli, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Maxime Mbandà, 5 George Biagi (captain), 4 Leonard Krumov, 3 Filippo Alongi, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Andrea Lovotti,
Replacements: 16 Luhandre Luus, 17 Daniele Rimpelli, 18 Giosué Zilocchi, 19 Samuele Ortis, 20 James Brown, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Nicolas De Battista, 23 Gabriele Di Giulio
Benetton: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Tommaso Allan (C), 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Toa Halafihi, 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Irné Herbst, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Nicola Quaglio
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Dean Budd, 20 Marco Lazzaroni, 21 Marco Barbini, 22 Dewaldt Duvenage, 23 Antonio Rizzi
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Mark Patton (Ireland)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)