Ulster take points but struggle to find rhythm
Dogged Zebre deservedly depart Ravenhill with a losing bonus point
Ulster’s Paddy Wallace and Alberto Chillon of Zebre during last night’s game. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ulster 13 Zebre 6
This was every bit the arm-wrestle that the scoreline suggests, with Ulster just about having the better of things on a night of swirling wind and rain and an occasion when new combinations struggled to find their rhythm.
It was a win, though, Ulster’s fifth in all competitions, and Mark Anscombe’s reshuffled side will take that though for the second time they struggled to deal with the abrasive Italians who deservedly made off with a losing bonus point. Despite that, with Leinster’s loss Ulster go second in the table ahead of the Christmas derbies.
Ulster at least got the only try – a terrific solo run from Jared Payne – and had notable contributions from Robbie Diack and Lewis Stevenson but, on the whole, it was a game to match the horrible conditions.
With the wind and rain behind them, Zebre made a much more robust start to the game and with just a quarter of an hour gone they already had a 6-0 lead.
Luciano Orquera landed the first score of the night from a third minute penalty after Craig Gilroy was pinged in contact and with Ulster struggling to keep the ball and get out of their half, Orquera then had another chance after eight minutes which he put wide.
Still, the Italians kept Ulster on the back foot and scrum-half Chillon Alberto’s break nearly put Orquera clear. Even though the chance went a begging, Zebre scored next and with Orquera off the field Tommas Iannone landed a 15th minute penalty after Ulster were adjudged offside to give the visitors a shock 6-0 lead.
Shoved out of play
It didn’t last, though, and Ulster eventually got themselves into the visitors’ territory though nothing initially came of two Paddy Wallace bursts – on his comeback game after last February’s serious knee injury and making his 189th Ulster appearance – and a scrum take against the head which saw Robbie Diack shoved out of play at the corner flag.
But after an Alberto relieving kick went out on the full, Ulster took the lineout and struck. It was Payne, of course, who made the difference and his line off James McKinney’s flat pass saw the Kiwi ghost past three defenders to ground the ball under the sticks.
Ruan Pienaar made the straightforward conversion and Ulster were in front for the first time at 7-6 which is how it stayed despite Zebre immediately taking play deep into Ulster territory after winger Sarto Leonardo’s mazy run.
Ulster ended the half still deep inside Zebre’s 22 but were unable to move the scoreboard onwards. They did so eight minutes after the resumption after Zebre failed to roll away at a ruck just on their own 22 and Pienaar did the needful with his first penalty.
However, a combination of Zebre not rolling over – Sarto had another dangerous run to panic the white shirts – and Ulster failing to be accurate in possession meant that the game descended into an error-fest with the next score only arriving in the 70th minute when Pienaar – now at outhalf after McKinney was called ashore – converted his second penalty to take it to 13-6 which is how it ended.
Meanwhile, Dan Biggar shone with a 17-point performance as the Ospreys maintained their recent outstanding record against Cardiff Blues with a thrilling 22-19 victory at Cardiff Arms Park.
Game called off
Elsewhere, Glasgow Warriors were forced to call off their home match against Benetton Treviso last night because of a waterlogged pitch.
The club announced the match at Scotstoun could not proceed after heavy rain hit Glasgow during the day, with the match postponed following a 6.05pm pitch inspection. “Match officials ruled it would be impossible to play,” Glasgow said in a statement on their website.
Glasgow have won seven of their opening nine matches in the competition this season.
ULSTER: R Andrew; C Gilroy, J Payne, P Wallace, M Allen; J McKinney, R Pienaar; C Black, N Annett, R Lutton, J Muller (capt), L Stevenson, M McComish, S Doyle, R Diack. Replacements: R Herring for N Annett and Tom Court for C Black (both 56mins); D McIlwaine for P Wallace (64mins); M Heaney for J McKinney (67mins); C Joyce for R Diack, A Macklin for R Lutton and N McComb for L Stevenson (all 76mins); P Nelson for C Gilroy (77mins).
ZEBRE: G Palazzani; L Sarto, T Iannone, R Quartaroli, D Berryman; L Orquera, A Chillon; A de Marchi, A Manici, D Chistolini, M Bortalami (capt), Q Geldenhuys, F Cristiano, F Ferrarini, N Cattina. Replacements : K Ratavou for for Qrquera (12-25 mins); T D’Apice for M Andrea (27mins); M Aguero for A De Marchi (53mins); M Van Vuren for M Bortolami (54mins); E Caffini for Ferrarini (64mins); L Redolfini for D Chistolini and A Van Schalkwyk for N Cattina (both 65mins); K Ratuvou for D Berryman (69mins).
Referee: N Hennessy (WRU).