Ulster 28 Benetton 8
Ulster made it 15 points from a possible 15 to start their United Rugby Championship campaign, seeing off the challenge of Benetton at Kingspan Stadium with little stress, even if the crucial fourth try didn’t arrive until the very last moments.
The Rainbow Cup champions arrived in Belfast having won two from two themselves to start the season but having made 11 changes from last weekend’s win over Edinburgh never looked like the side so heavily talked up in recent weeks.
Dan McFarland's men had three tries up by half-time, two of them coming when their ill-disciplined visitors were reduced to 14 men, with Rob Herring among the scorers on the occasion of his 200th outing for the northern province.
It was Nathan Doak who proved the hero though, scoring the crucial try on this ground for the second time in as many games.
The Irish under-20s scrumhalf, getting the start in the absence of John Cooney, scored in the 77th minute to secure the bonus point, his second try of the evening to go along with four conversions accounting for a personal haul of 18 points.
Despite the ultimately comfortable nature of the win, Ulster had been forced to weather early setbacks, first losing Andrew Warwick with less than two minutes on the clock and then falling behind when Tom O'Toole was pinged at the breakdown.
Leonardo Marin, the hero of last week's dramatic win over Edinburgh, had no problems with the central penalty.
In response, Ulster spent an eternity in the opposing ‘22’, thinking they’d scored when Herring broke from the maul only for the TMO to give word that David McCann had got ahead of his hooker.
As the Benetton penalties stacked up, prop Ivan Nemer was sent to the bin but still the visitors remained resolute, eventually clearing their lines when Ulster knocked on.
The reprise would be shortlived though, as Ulster wasted little time in getting back into their opponents' territory. A clever kick from Billy Burns found Ethan McIlroy out wide with the wing's own probing kick leaving Marin no choice but to carry the ball into touch.
When the maul again made little headway, the backs again took over and Burns again went to the boot to find Craig Gilroy who beat Rhyno Smith to the ball in the air to score.
Doak converted and would go over himself shortly after, a brilliant exchange with his number eight McCann creating the opening.
As Nemer returned, his side had gone from 3-0 up to 14-3 down in his absence.
The return to a full complement didn’t shift the momentum. Another maul in the corner and this time Herring wasn’t to be denied, smashing the ball down emphatically as his forward colleagues rumbled up to the whitewash.
A decidedly underwhelming third quarter from the hosts ended with James Hume shown a yellow card after persistent infringement and Ratuva Tavuyara breaking through the tackles of Gilroy and Doak in the corner.
While Ulster remained on top in terms of both territory and possession despite playing with a man down, frustration was clearly seeping in as the error-count continued to rise.
With Benetton starting to get on top at scrum time, Ulster were denied a crucial platform but it was a Benetton penalty at the set-piece that opened the door.
With a lineout on the 22, Benetton were pinged again and with five minutes to go, Ulster were camped five metres out.
While the maul couldn’t get over, it was the 19-year-old Doak who kept a cool head as Ulster were forced to work from sideline to sideline before the scrumhalf sniped across the line.
ULSTER: W Addison; C Gilroy, J Hume, S Moore, E McIlroy; B Burns, N Doak; A Warwick, R Herring, T O'Toole; A O'Connor, S Carter (capt); M Rea, N Timoney, D McCann.
Replacements: C Reid for Warwick (2 mins), M Lowry for Burns (40), M Kearney for Carter (50), R Kane for O'Toole (54), S Reidy for McCann (64), B Roberts for Herring (69), D Shanahan for Doak, B Moxham for Addison (both 77).
Yellow card: J Hume (58).
BENETTON: R Smith; R Tavuyara, M Zanon, T Benvenuti, L Sperandio; L Marin, C Braley; F Zani, C Els, I Nemer; I Herbst, F Ruzza; G Pettinelli, M Lamaro (Capt.), B Steyn.
Replacements: T Pasquali for Steyn (17-28) and for Herbst (49), C Traore for Zani (40), T Baravalle for Else, M Lazzaroni for Ruzza, S Negri for Lamaro (all 49), L Morisi for Benvenuti (60), L Cannone for Braley (77).
Yellow card: I Nemer (17)
Referee: AJ Jacobs (South Africa)