Ulster 35 Benetton 24
Ulster survived a brief floodlight failure and a ferocious fight back from a gallant Benetton team, who played some cracking rugby, to eke out a hard-fought victory on the opening weekend of the new Guinness Pro14 season at the Kingspan stadium. It was a hugely entertaining tussle, putting the mistakes to one side.
The home side scored five tries in total, there were impressive individual performances, notably Matty Rea, Marcell Coetzee, the midfield duo Stewart Moore and James Hume and Craig Gilroy, who was one of the few Ulster players who didn't put a foot wrong. The lineout maul was devastating at times and some of the attacking patterns were very effective but there were enough imperfections, particularly in defence, that will occupy the coaching cadre in the week ahead.
Benetton, who scored three tries, deserved something from the game, for the manner in which they took the game to, and at times dominated Ulster, but they faded a little bit in the final quarter and that ultimately cost them dearly.
It was a breathless opening 20 minutes in every sense, the ball-in-play time lung-bursting as both teams looked to put width on the game. Against that backdrop Ulster scored two cracking tries, the first from Hume following a gorgeous grubber kick by John Cooney with the outside of his right foot, and then a first for his province by Moore.
The young centre had already served notice of his talent with a brilliant early break and one or two other touches that underlined his elegance as a runner and distributor. Gilroy and Rea were others to catch the eye early on. Cooney converted both but there is no doubt that Benetton hardly deserved to be 14-0 down based on the balance of play.
Their attacking enterprise had periodically caused huge discomfort for an Ulster side that looked ominously brittle in defence, especially against the Italian side's power runners. A try for Federico Ruzza followed by some muscular, direct play proved a conduit back into the game and despite conceding a third try to Ulster, scored by Michael Lowry following good work by Rea, Benetton dominated the remainder of the half.
They were facilitated by Jacob Stockdale's yellow card on 32 minutes for a high tackle – the fullback had started the game brightly – and some weak defence. From the penalty, Paolo Garbisi nudged the ball into the corner and after winning the lineout, the hugely impressive right wing Iliesa Ratuva's power earned vital metres before Garbisi got on the outside of Moore to dot down; the outhalf adding the conversion.
Five minutes later and the Italians had parity on the scoreboard, Ratuva once again the catalyst, before Abraham Steyn forced his way over from close range. It was no more than Benetton deserved for the quality of their play.
Lowry’s bravery is unquestioned but his technique in the tackle will have to improve, getting his head on the wrong side a couple of times. He wasn’t alone. Too many times the visitors found soft shoulders, using the inside pass to telling effect. The home side’s game management when a player down was also questionable, one or two kicks sub-standard and poorly directed, while kick-off receptions were also an issue.
Benetton claimed the lead three minutes after the restart, Moore caught offside, punished by the 20-year-old Garbisi, who looks a great prospect. One facet of the game in which Ulster had a pronounced advantage was the lineout maul, two brilliant examples eventually led to a try for the outstanding Coetzee; his team’s fourth, thereby earning a bonus point. Cooney converted.
The expectation after 52 points in 46 minutes was that the scoreboard would keep whirring along but despite the arrival of a steady stream of replacements, tired minds and limbs saw the error rate spiral. Ulster turned down a couple of kickable penalties, butchered one try chance before another superb lineout maul led to a try for Adam McBurney, which fellow replacement Bill Johnston converted.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 8 mins: Hume try, Cooney con, 7-0; 11: Moore try, Cooney con, 14-0; 23: Ruzza try, Garbisi con, 14-7; 28: Lowry try, Cooney con, 21-7; 33: Garbisi try, Garbisi con, 21-14; 38: Steyn try, Garbisi con, 21-21. Half-time: 21-21. 43: Garbisi pen, 21-24; 46: Coetzee try, Cooney con, 28-24; 74: McBurney try, Johnston con, 35-24.
ULSTER: J Stockdale; C Gilroy, J Hume, S Moore, R Lyttle; M Lowry, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, M Moore; S Carter, I Henderson (capt); M Rea, S Reidy, M Coetzee.
Replacements: E O'Sullivan for McGrath (half-time); D O'Connor for Carter (50 mins); D McCann for Reidy (56 mins); A Mathewson for Cooney, B Johnston for Lowry (both 59 mins); A McBurney for Herring (64 mins); G Milasinovich for (69 mins); L Ludik for Coietzee (75 mins).
Yellow card: J Stockdale (32 mins).
BENETTON: J Hayward; I Ratuva, I Brex, M Zanon, M Ioane; P Garbisi, D Duvenage (capt); C Traore, H Faiva, M Ricconi; M Lazzaroni, F Ruzza; S Negri, A Steyn, T Halafihi.
Replacements: S Ferrari for Ricconi (41 mins); G Lucchesi for Faiva, N Cannone for Negri, E Snyman for Halafihi (all 50 mins); N Quaglio for Traore (56 mins); C Braley for Duvenage (59 mins); G Pettinelli for Ruzza, E Padovani for Ratuva (both 64 mins).
Referee: A Jones (Wales).