Ulster 23 Aironi 10: Ulster ground out an unimpressive Ravenhill win last night and their failure to earn a bonus point may prove to have cost them dearly in the fight for a top four finish in the Magners League.
Aironi came to Belfast having lost all 15 of their matches since entering the Magners League — and bottom of the table as a result — to face opponents who had beaten them three times this season.
A mere two minutes in, Ulster bagged the first of what was to have been a glut of tries and it followed an example of near-textbook rugby.
From a penalty on half-way Ruan Pienaar kicked perfectly to touch five from the Aironi line. Nigel Brady’s line-out throw to Johann Muller was spot-on and three mauls later it was burly tighthead Tom Court who grounded the ball.
Pienaar’s conversion from wide right came back off a post, but Aironi’s reprieve was only temporary.
A left-right Ulster move saw Andrew Trimble kick cleverly to isolated full-back James Marshall
who was promptly wrapped up by man of the match Nevin Spence. Referee Leighton Hodges awarded a twice-set scrum-five far out on the right and when Ulster won that, the passage ended with Craig Gilroy going over on the far side for what was his seventh try in seven senior outings.
Pienaar’s conversion was true and Ulster led by 12 points with fewer minutes played. So far, so good: half-way to the four-try target with 70-plus minutes in which to reach it.
Twelve points became 15 when Pienaar popped an easy 14th minute penalty between the Aquinas End posts.
They might well have had further tries, but twice, having worked to create an extra man, they conspired to deny themselves courtesy of poor passing or sloppy handling.
Finally, Aironi punished the hosts’ laxity when Riccardo Bocchino kicked a 29th minute penalty and although Pienaar, almost immediately, had a chance to restore the 15-point differential when he was offered a shot at the posts, he miscued that.
At that, Ulster appeared to switch off, the game became flat and little by little, Aironi began to recover. And in the 38th minute they pinched a try out of nowhere when full-back James Marshall took full advantage of an absent Ulster defence to ghost through for an under-the-posts try to which Bocchino added the extras, which left it 15-10 at half-time.
Ulster needed to take control, but they resumed by losing a line-out on their own throw, failing to get up in support of Paul Marshall when he made rapid yards from a quickly taken penalty, before Willie Faloon threw out a slack pass, which was intercepted by Danwel Demas.
He ran from his own 22, deep into that of the home side, whose
hides were only saved by Pienaar’s tap-tackle, which finally felled the big winger when he looked to be going all the way.
Ulster were a shambles at that stage and, in an attempt to kick-start them, Brian McLaughlin withdrew Paddy McCallister and Nigel Brady from his front row as well as calling Adam D’Arcy ashore, with Andi Kyriacou, Declan Fitzpatrick and Simon Danielli respectively deputising.
Things got worse, for with Aironi encamped in the Ulster 22 and threatening, the hosts suffered another huge blow when captain Johann Muller was sent to the sin bin in the 55th minute for joining a ruck from the Italians’ side.
To their credit, Ulster scrapped manfully to ensure they avoided punishment during that period of numerical disadvantage.
Better than that, it was Ulster who scored the first points of the second half when Pienaar goaled a 63rd minute penalty, making it 18-10 just ahead of Muller’s return to action.
Then. with eight minutes remaining, Fitzpatrick was adjudged to have got the ball down in the midst of a bundle of bodies in the Aironi in-goal area, with TMO Marshall Kilgore awarding the try.
Pienaar fluffed the conversion, his third off-the-tee miss in six attempts.
A win following a very hard night’s work, but a timely reality check.
Disappointed McLaughlin hits out at sloppy mistakes
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin admitted that he was disappointed to have missed out on a bonus point following his side’s hard-earned 23-10 Magners League win over Aironi at Ravenhill.
A maximum five points was the goal, but Ulster had to settle for four. And in view of how tight things are in the fight for Top Four slots, the loss of that extra may yet prove crucial.
“We dropped a point tonight but we knew Aironi was always going to be tough. In fairness to them, at times tonight they played exceptionally well,” he said.
“They’re in the unfortunate position of being bottom, but they fight very hard, they cause you a lot of problems, they make it very difficult for you to play and tonight in the second half you saw exactly what they can do.”
“I don’t think that the win was ever in doubt. The only way that we could lose the game was for us to lose it, if you know what I’m trying to say.
“First 20 minutes we were very much in control and then our accuracy just started to let us down. We dropped a few passes, we made a few poor decisions and they went through those cracks and caused us problems.”
Explaining why he felt his side ended up struggling against opponents they had looked like blasting out of the water in a remarkable first quarter, McLaughlin suggested that they had raced into the lead too quickly.
“If you look at the game I think that in the first 20 minutes we played magnificent rugby. I think the problem was that we scored 15 points too quickly,” he smiled.
“We then started making little errors. We kicked ball away at times when we should have run and we let them back at us.
“We made the point before the game that tonight we were trying to push on from what we did last week (in beating Cardiff).
“That (performance) is something we really need to look at because we ended up in a position we shouldn’t really have been in.
“We’ve got a nice week’s break now to get our heads round it and when we come back we’ve got the biggest five weeks in Ulster’s history for the last 10 years.”