Zebre 27 Ulster 23
No one really saw this one coming, least of all Ulster, but Les Kiss’s squad can have new complaints as they never really came to terms with a fired-up Zebre side who registered a shock but thoroughly deserved triumph in Parma.
The defeat was massively damaging and not only derailed Ulster’s bid to go five wins from five but also scuppered the now third-placed side’s intended return to the top of Conference B.
But the result was also a massive boost for the credentials for new Zebre coach Michael Bradley as his squad racked up back-to-back wins by playing an attacking game which the northern province struggled to contain.
“You get out of this game what you earn,” said a clearly dejected Kiss, whose much-changed side were fortunate to escape with a losing bonus point. “We just weren’t accurate enough at the right time and the energy seemed to not be there.”
“We’re not going to panic about anything,” insisted Kiss, who must lift his players to face Connacht at the Kingspan stadium on Friday evening in their final game before the first two rounds of the Champions Cup.
“We’re going to stay really rational and pull out the right things that we have to work on.”
There was no hiding from the fact that it had been a dire performance by Ulster – particularly in the second half when they coughed up all three tries to the hosts – as they failed to cope with Zebre's ambition and accuracy. The attacking skills of fullback Matteo Minozzi and try-scoring winger Mattia Bellini regularly shredded them out wide.
Indeed, it really ought to have been worse for Ulster – for whom Andrew Trimble scored on his 221st appearance to equal that of former sole record holder Roger Wilson before Darren Cave snatched a late touchdown for the losing bonus point – as home outhalf Carlo Canna managed to butcher two straightforward first-half penalties.
Ulster – whose only previous defeat to Zebre was in Parma back in 2014 – had led 13-6 at the break after what had been a fitful opening 40 minutes for them in which John Cooney had converted Trimble's 17th-minute try and then added two penalties.
The game erupted into life seven minutes after the restart when Zebre pounced on some loose ball in Ulster's 22 and Canna's cross-kick – with Louis Ludik receiving attention out on the wing – was picked out by flanker Giovanni Licata. Canna's conversion tied the scores.
Five minutes later and the home side had the lead when Minozzi raced through and Bellini finished off. Marcello Violi’s conversion put Zebre 20-13 up.
A 62nd-minute Cooney penalty cut Zebre’s lead to four points but the scrumhalf was then rather curiously replaced. Ulster then thought they had reclaimed the lead, after turning down a kickable penalty, but Wiehahn Herbst’s score was ruled out via the TMO for what seemed a rather puzzling maul offence.
Ulster then went for the corner again with 10 minutes to go but this time number eight Renato Giammarioli intercepted Christian Lealiifano's pass to Iain Henderson and galloped the length of the field. Violi's conversion put Bradley's men 27-16 ahead.
All that was left was Cave’s try and drop goal conversion, allowing Ulster their scarcely merited point.
Zebre: M Minozzi; G Bisegni, T Boni, T Castello (capt), M Bellini; C Canna, M Violi; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, D Chistolini; D Sisi, G Biagi; G Licata, J Meyer, R Giammarioli.
Replacements: S Panico for Lovotti (half-time), L Krumow for Sisi (48 mins), E Bello for Chistilini (62 mins), G Venditti for Boni (63 mins), L Luus for Fabiani (67 mins), J Sarto for Giammarioli (73 mins), S Bordoli for Canna (74 mins). Not used: G Palazzani
Ulster: C Piutau; A Trimble (capt), D Cave, L Marshall, L Ludik; C Lealiffano, J Cooney; C Black, J Andrew, R Ah You; P Browne, I Henderson; M Rea, S Reidy, J Deysel. Replacements: K Treadwell for Browne (27 mins), A Warwick for Black and W Herbst for Ah You (both 49 mins), R Lyttle for Ludik (49 mins), N Timoney for Deysel (54 mins), D Shanahan for Cooney (63 mins), A McBurney for Rea (77 mins). Not used: P Nelson
Referee: M Adamson (SRU)