Ulster didn't work hard enough to beat Zebre, says Kiss
Zebre 27 Ulster 23
Ulster's winning run came to a surprising and sudden halt in Parma on Saturday with Director of Rugby Les Kiss admitting his side got exactly what they deserved against perennial strugglers Zebre.
Having won four of four games before the trip to northern Italy, the early pace-setters in Conference B were expected to secure a routine win and carry their momentum into Friday's first inter-pro of the season against Connacht.
The hosts, now coached by former Irish international Michael Bradley, were themselves buoyed by a rare win against Southern Kings last week but, with the likes of Iain Henderson, Christian Leali'ifano, John Cooney and Jean Deysel brought back into Ulster's starting line-up, few were predicting Kiss's men would be suffering just a second ever defeat on Italian soil.
But, after the province coughed up nine turnovers to a determined Zebre defence, as well as missing almost a fifth of their tackles, the 27-23 win for an outfit whose very future seemed uncertain this summer was fully deserved.
Indeed, despite turning around 13-6 to the good after Andrew Trimble's first-half try, an abysmal second 40 left the visitors relieved that Darren Cave's last-gasp score at least earned a losing bonus to ensure it wasn't a wholly fruitless trip.
While Ulster did bristle at the decision to chalk off a Wiehahn Herbst try for an offence in the maul, and the officials were certainly lax when it came to pinging offside, had Ulster went on to win after that late non-score, the better side assuredly would have lost.
With try-scorers Mattia Bellini and Gio Licata especially prominent, Kiss acknowledged his side could not match the spirit and energy Zebre displayed while securing their first back-to-back wins since April.
"You get out of this game what you earn, and we didn't work hard enough to get what we wanted," he blasted.
"You have to take your hat off to Zebre. They were coming off the line hard and really putting pressure on our skill-sets and they profited from that. They were spirited and it's disappointing we didn't match that."
With Ulster having also struggled before ultimately holding off Treviso when they last visited Italy, as well as the newly added Cheetahs winning their third in succession over the weekend, the Australian added that this may now be the reality in a PRO14 which has not been the two-tiered competition of haves and have nots that it appeared in the first two weeks.
"That's the game now," he added. "This is the competition. We want to see these teams do well but not at our expense."
Ulster hope to have Marcell Coetzee and Lion Jared Payne back among their number for next Friday's visit from Kieran Keane's out of sorts outfit, but this result, essentially sealed by Renato Giammarioli length-of-the-field intercept score in the 73rd minute, will provide a rude awakening ahead of a crucial month.
After the Westerners come to Kingspan this week, the province are into Champions Cup action with a visit from Wasps and a trip to La Rochelle, two fixtures that will have a huge bearing on whether they have any hope of making a first European quarter-final since 2014.
And things don't get any easier when the PRO14 resumes at the end of this month with Leinster coming north to Belfast.
Keen not to throw the baby out with the bathwater after the encouraging early run that included a win over league champions Scarlets, Kiss stressed that the side will do their best to filter out any fan unrest sure to resurface after one of their most surprising losses of the professional era.
"(Losing can) just be a reminder," he said. "You can listen to what the world is saying or you can look at where you're at.
"The game is great at giving reminders and lessons and we got one there. Certainly, we have to pick it up; We've got to dust ourselves down and get things right."
ZEBRE: M Minozzi; G Bisegni, T Boni, T Castello (c), 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, 40), L Krumov (for Biagi, 49) E Bello (for Chistolini, 63), G Venditti (for Boni, 64) L Luus (for Fabiani, 67), J Sarto (for Giammarioli, 74).
ULSTER: C Piutau; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, L Ludik; C Leali'ifano, 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), W Herbst (for Ah You, 49), A Warwick (for Black, 49) R Lyttle (for Ludik, 49) N Timoney (for Deysel, 54) D Shanahan (for Cooney, 63), A McBurney, (for Timoney, 77)
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)
• England prop Kyle Sinckler has been cited for an alleged eye-gouging incident in Harlequins' Aviva Premiership defeat at Northampton on Saturday.
Sinckler was accused of the offence by Michael Paterson following an incident in the 49th minute, but referee Luke Pearce decided replay footage was inconclusive and awarded a penalty only for removing the Saints lock's scrum cap.
The entry-level sanction for making contact with the eye and/or eye area is a 12-week suspension, threatening the combustible British and Irish Lions tighthead's involvement in England's autumn series against Argentina, Australia and Samoa.
Sinckler must appear before an RFU disciplinary panel in Bristol on Tuesday evening.