A nervy finish for Ulster against Treviso
Treviso 20 - Ulster 24
Ulster finally got their second away win of the campaign with a 24-20 victory against Treviso at the Stadio Monigo but there will have been little celebration on the journey home after a shocking second-half display almost saw Neil Doak's men lose in Italy for the second time this season.
As the seconds slipped away, Ulster led by just four points when Michele Campagnaro intercepted a pass from Paddy Jackson and looked set to streak home underneath the posts to notch a famous win.
Indeed, if the Italian international centre's hands had not failed him at the crucial moment, Ulster would have been preparing to visit European champions Toulon this weekend coming off the back of one of their worst ever Pro12 results.
That the game ended in such a nail-biting fashion for the visitors would have seemed scarcely believable in the first-half of a contest that looked set to see a bonus-point win secured before the turn.
When a combination of frankly abysmal work from Treviso, and encouraging half-back play by Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar, saw Ulster rack up 24 points in as many minutes, it seemed virtually impossible that they would not score again but so it proved.
Twenty unanswered points from their previously hospitable hosts followed and suddenly all that good work could have easily been undone.
There were just seven minutes on the clock when Ulster took the lead thanks to a try from Paddy Jackson, their star performer on the day.
When Treviso strayed offside, Ulster kicked to the corner and, while the lineout was untidy, it was claimed by Clive Ross.
The attack moved across the pitch and back again without making much headway before Jackson's grubber through a flat defensive line bounced back perfectly into his arms and allowed him to score underneath the posts.
The fly-half - who spent a lengthy spell practicing his kicking at the Kingspan Stadium during last week - took over duties off the tee after Pienaar's shaky performance against Leinster the previous weekend and knocked over the simple conversion for a 7-0 lead.
Attacks from Treviso were a rarity in the first-half but they did threaten soon after, the passage of play resulting in a yellow card for Craig Gilroy when he intentionally strayed offside to block a pass and curtail the danger.
Rather than allow Treviso back into the contest however, the 14 men extended their lead when the pack won a penalty at the scrum and Jackson knocked over the resulting kick.
Gilroy returned just as the second quarter began and, keen to make up for lost time, was involved in two quickfire scores.
First a Dan Tuohy break upfield created gaps before Best and Diack combined to send the recently restored winger streaking up the left flank.
There was a hint of a forward pass when the ball went inside to Pienaar - the home crowd certainly thought so - but referee Ben Whitehouse saw no problem and the Springbok was over the line.
Two minutes later, Gilroy was at his pirouetting best as he danced upfield before eventually being halted by Treviso.
The ball was recycled to Jackson whose delightful flat pass to Tommy Bowe saw the international winger go in unopposed.
The conversion made it 24-0 but Ulster would not trouble the scoreboard operator for the remainder of the afternoon.
Treviso had seemed so poor, over those five minutes especially, that a rout seemed inevitable but, after a few missed opportunities for Ulster sapped the momentum, the hosts scored just before the break when Jayden Hayward's kick behind bounced into the hands of Sam Christie who scored in the corner after fending off Bowe's attempts to force him into touch.
The conversion was nailed from a testing position by Hayward but, even with a half-time score of 24-7, Ulster will not have been unduly worried.
The showing after the turn, however, was inexplicable.
When Ulster were in possession the ball was slow, while the passes that had opened up their opponents in the first-half were suddenly not going to hand.
The carelessness began to become extemely worrisome when defensive gaps opened in the midfield- especially after Darren Cave was subbed after 52 minutes - and substitute flanker Francesco Minto took advantage in the corner.
The conversion again proved no issue for Hayward and Ulster's lead was now just 10.
The Kiwi added a further two penalties to bring Treviso within a try of the win and, while Rory Best still chased after a fourth score and the accompanying bonus, the effort was severely undermined when a trio of lineouts were stolen within a matter of minutes.
So ineffectual had the attack proven over the past half an hour, and with Campagnaro's attempts to inflict a disaster upon them having no doubt knocked the confidence even further, that when the clock showed red and the ball was booted to touch, Ulster were relieved to merely escape with a win that had seemed a virtual certainty just an hour ago.