A late Zebre try thwarted Cardiff as their BKT United Rugby Championship ended in a tense draw.
The Blue and Blacks had taken an early lead thanks to Ben Thomas but the Italians hit-back with a pair of quick-fire tries, the second in fortuitous circumstances against the run of play.
But Matt Sherratt’s men battled back with second-half tries from Lopeti Timani and then crucially Mason Grady to put Cardiff seven points in front. Cardiff looked like they would hold on to the victory, but the Italian side went over deep into extra time to claim the draw.
It was a scrappy opening period with both teams enjoying opportunities and Zebre showing a willingness to off-load and attack from all areas.
And it burst into life on eight minutes with Cam Winnett breaking the line. He raced into the Zebre half but was short of support and attempted an audacious kick through for Tomos Williams.
It was blocked by the Italians, who then attacked from their 22 but ignored an overlap to kick downfield. Tinus de Beer won the race back and with both teams now out of structure, space remained.
Lopeti Timani floated a long pass to Rey Lee-Lo, on the wing, who made good ground before combining with Mason Grady. Cardiff continued to go through the phases with Thomas, Timani and Rhys Carré carrying to good affect.
Finally the pressure told as Thomas cut a razor-sharp inside line to hit a flat pass and crash over. De Beer added the simple extras to give Cardiff a seven point lead.
Zebre had the opportunity to hit back five minutes later but Geronimo Prisciantelli fired wide and he was off-target again on 20 minutes.
Zebre were dealt a blow on 25 minutes when Alessandro Fusco was sent to the sin-bin. Mason Grady had made a fine break, taking on several defenders when he was flipped in the tackle.
Cardiff kicked to the corner and attempted a neat trick play at the front of the line-out with Seb Davies returning the ball to Liam Belcher, but the hooker could not quite break free. Moments later, possession was lost at a scrappy breakdown and on 27 minutes Zebre had another chance but Prisciantelli was again off-target.
Zebre kicked to the corner shortly after the half hour mark and while Cardiff held the driving line out at bay and initially defended well, Franco Smith hit an almost identical line to Thomas to cross the whitewash. Prisciantelli converted to tie the scores at 7-7.
Minutes later, Zebre claimed a second try in fortuitous circumstances. They burst through the Cardiff defence at the edge of a line out drive inside their own half with Dave Sisi galloping clear.
He was eventually hauled down but the ball was quickly spread to the left and kicked through to the corner. It looked as though Cardiff would survive but after a frantic scramble and a number of ricochets Luca Morisi touched down.
It was a sucker punch for Cardiff and following long TMO deliberations, the try was awarded to give the Parma outfit a 12-7 lead.
Cardiff threw everything at Zebre in the closing minutes of the half with some scintillating attacking play but they could not quite cross and were turned over on the Zebre try-line.
The Blue and Blacks made a promising start to the second-half and enjoyed plenty of possession and territory, with a number of opportunities but they could not quite find the scoring pass and made errors at key moments.
They spent minutes camped in the Zebre 22, throwing everything at the Italians, who continued to cling on and frustrate the visitors with their physicality and tenacity. It was a brutal period of play but the reward eventually came when Timani powered over from close range.
De Beer knocked over the simple conversion to edge Cardiff back in front but it was short lived as Prisciantelli landed a simple conversion on 22 minutes to make it 15-14 to the Italians.
Cardiff had the opportunity to hit back minutes later with some smart play twice back down the blind side before Giacomo Ferrari slapped down what could have been a scoring pass. It was a three versus two overlap and while Mike Adamson awarded the penalty, surprisingly there was no further punishment.
De Beer kicked to the corner but Cardiff were unable to cross and soon settled for three points from the South African’s boot.
There were plenty of nerves from both teams but on 72 minutes Cardiff claimed a sensational try from inside their own 22. With decisions not going their way and pressure mountain, De Beer collected a kick.
He had three defenders baring down on him but managed to slice through and combine with Thomas Young. The electric flanker kicked ahead but the ball did not bounce his way, however bizarrely, Lorenzo Pani popped the ball straight back to Winnett.
The ball was quickly recycled and spread to the left, where Willis Halaholo unleashed his trademark hot step to create the space and put Mason Grady away.
Cardiff looked like they would hold on for victory with some impressive defence, but the pressure eventually told and Zebre scrambled over in the 85th minute and the conversion bringing the scores level.