Only a piece of magic by Jared Payne spared the home side from being pantomime villains. Lethargic and lacking sharpness and accuracy, only number eight Robbie Diack maintained anything like European Cup form.
Very soft underfoot, rain hurtling down in gusts, and handling at times becoming a real lottery. With that wind on their tails in the first half, Zebre were not going to be used as fodder.
Ulster set out their stall out playing possession rugby against the elements. Zebre tried to play for position and from Luciano Orquera’s first kick, he found Craig Gilroy, who was pinged for holding, and Orquera split a low penalty between the posts.
The only bright point at this juncture was the enthusiasm of the returning Paddy Wallace who was playing his first match for nine months.
In the 10th minute Zebre almost extended their lead when McKinney had a kick charged down and Orquera darted clear before he was clattered to the ground and subsequently had to leave the field for a head wound.
Ulster’s solid scrum was under pressure and when Callum Black buckled in the 14th minute, replacement kicker Tommaso Iannone floated over his side’s second penalty from 40 metres.
Ulster finally started to find a little cohesion at the start of the second quarter and one great drive almost brought the opening try, only for Gilroy to spill the ball as he was hit by two tacklers. Michael Allen was another who nearly squeezed over close to the line only to again lose possession.
The Italians were beginning to frustrate Ulster with their spoiling tactics and slowing ruck ball.
Ulster finally blasted ahead in the 30th minute after a brilliant solo effort by Payne. A lineout ball was taken off the top by Muller and McKinney delivered a long ball to Payne just over the halfway line. The Auckland-born centre burst through one tackle, evaded two challenges before striding in under the posts. Pienaar converted as Ulster went in at half-time with a one-point lead.
Ulster started the second half keeping up the pressure and they were rewarded with a straightforward penalty in the 47th minute.
Again Ulster’s momentum was being stifled by Zebre though whose rugged defence was proving hard to crack.
Ulster were nearly caught cold on the hour when Leonardo Sarto broke clear for a mazy 50m run which left defenders grasping thin air before he was felled.
Ulster’s frustrations continued until a second Pienaar penalty in the 72nd minute gave the province some breathing space and they held out for a less-than inspiring victory.
Scorers for Ulster: Tries: Payne; Cons: Pienaar Pens: Pienaar 2
ULSTER: R Andrew; C Gilroy (Nelson, 77), J Payne, P Wallace (McIlwaine, 64), M Allen; J McKinney (Heaney, 61), R Pienaar; C Black (Court, 56), N Annett (Herring, 56), R Lutton (Macklin, 76), J Muller, capt, L Stevenson (McCombe, 76), M McComish, S Doyle, R Diack (Joyce, 76).
Zebre scorers: Pens: Orquera, Iannone
ZEBRE: G Palazzani; L Sarto (Leonard, 79), T Iannone, R Quartaroli, D Berryman (Ratuvou, 69); L Orquera (Ratuvou, 13), A Chillon; A de Marchi (Aguero, 52), A Manici (T D’apice, 26) D Chistolini, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolini, capt, (van Vuren 55) F Cristiano, F Ferranni (Caffini, 62), N Cattina.
Referee: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
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