Cardiff Blues overcame adversity to open their 2020-21 season on a winning note with electric wing Josh Adams crossing for his eighth try in nine games.
The Arms Park outfit led 10-3 at the interval thanks to Adams’ killer instinct and the boot of Jarrod Evans.
However, they played almost the entire second-half down to 14 men after Josh Turnbull was given his marching orders for a high tackle.
With the match still very much in the balance it appeared ominous for John Mulvihill’s men but they battled heroically and took control of the encounter with Evans and Jason Tovey adding penalties.
Cardiff Blues now return to Wales for a ‘home’ encounter against Connacht, which will be staged at Rodney Parade on October 10.
Jarrod Evans kicked off the Guinness PRO14 season and the Blues made an assured start, displaying their attacking intention from the off.
On the first occasion Zebre looked to threaten, Jim Botham pounced with a hugely impressive turnover, which was not to be his first of the evening.
Zebre enjoyed the majority of possession but again, when they attacked the Cardiff Blues 22 they were held at bay, this time by Shane Lewis-Hughes, who held up the attacker for a turnover scrum.
The hosts were dealt a blow on nine minutes as Federico Mori was sent to the sin-bin after taking out Matthew Morgan as he claimed a high ball with aplomb.
Minutes later some fine defensive work from Halaholo and Lee-Lo, and then Lewis-Hughes earned a penalty and Evans opened his account for a 3-0 lead.
Zebre could have responded with a penalty of their own just two minutes later but that man Lewis-Hughes pinched a line out allowing the Blues to clear before Cory Hill got in on the act.
While Mulvihill’s men did not have much possession and the game was being played in their own half, they did continue to threaten with a break from Lee-Lo unlocking the Zebre defence but his offload not going to hand.
Zebre fired wide with another penalty but made no mistake on the third time of asking with Carlos Canna levelling the scores.
Evans fired marginally wide moments later but the Blues quickly struck after the hosts cleared from the drop-out 22.
The fly-half spotted space on the right and sent a kick to the wing. Zebre committed the cardinal sin and let the ball bounce with who else but Adams on hand to collect and race clear for his eighth try in nine games.
Evans added the extras to make it 10-3 and he continued to cause the Italians problems with his clever armoury of kicks.
The majority of the game continued to be played in Cardiff territory and Zebre caused problems with their offloading game.
Canna was also a thorn in the side and a ghosting break, which appeared to include two incidents of crossing, caused chaos before Amos latched onto loose ball to race free, however he was called back for a Blues knock on.
Cardiff Blues strong presence over the ball remained a feature of the second-half but they were dealt a devastating blow on 43 minutes when Turnbull was sent off.
There was no real ferocity in Turnbull’s tackle but it was adjudged that he caught Italian international Maxime Mbandà on the bottom of the chin. A yellow card perhaps would have sufficed but George Clancy opted for red and Canna cut the Blues lead to 10-6.
Despite the adversity, Cardiff Blues pinned Zebre into the bottom right corner and a fine line out steal from Hill really turned on the pressure.
After a succession of phases with Zebre being allowed to fly over the breakdown, Evans opted for another pinpoint kick that found Amos. The wing offloaded to Morgan who was scragged agonisingly close to the line but his attempted pass back was nudged forward despite Lee-Lo finishing.
Evans saw a long-range penalty sail marginally right of the uprights before he sliced through the Zebre defence with a trademark break in which he sold a number of dummies.
He had Lloyd Williams racing desperately to offer support on the inside but the pass was available for a split second with the fly-half opting to go to the outside. He offloaded out of contact but it was picked off by the hosts, who then won a penalty to clear their lines.
On 56 minutes, with the Blues now enjoying the majority of territory due to an advantageous swirling wind, Evans kept the scoreboard ticking with his second penalty.
They continued to set up camp in the Zebre half with the Italians enjoying increasingly rare forays out, however with a numerical deficit it remained tense.
With Garyn Smith, Dillon Lewis ad Rhys Carré already on, Olly Robinson and Jason Tovey were called into action on 68 minutes and the replacement fly-half’s first act was to slot a penalty that made it 16-6.
Crucial defensive interventions from Hallam Amos and Robinson denied the hosts a losing bonus point and ensured Cardiff Blues travelled back to Wales without conceding a try.