Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Pro12: Payne at Ravenhill

Ulster crashed to a third successive RaboDirect Pro12 defeat last night - their first ever against Italian opponents - and it was a shocker.

All involved will surely be thankful that Ireland's ensuing World Cup quarter-final this morning served to help bury the bad news. Worse still was an injury that could rule out key capture New Zealander Jared Payne for the rest of the season.

Benetton Treviso came to Ravenhill buoyed by back-to-back victories over Glasgow Warriors and Scarlets at Firhill and Stadio Monigo respectively.

They had lost all six of their previous meetings with Ulster so the completion of a hat-trick against hosts unbeaten at Ravenhill since December 27, and boosted by the return of Ian Humphreys, Darren Cave and Payne, made the result even harder to comprehend.

But Ulster can have no complaints. From the start they were unimpressive.

They deservedly fell behind as two horrendously slack passes by the Ulster backs, led to a Treviso scrum which in turn yielded a penalty in front of the posts. Kristopher Burton popped that between the Memorial End posts and Ulster trailed 3-0 after seven minutes.

Treviso continued to call the shots. Ulster, in contrast, continued to make mistakes and they were then dealt another serious blow when, after only 15 minutes, Payne limped off with what looked like a ruptured achilles tendon.

Treviso wing Luca Morisi promptly followed him, with Adam D'Arcy for Payne, Alberto Sgarbi for Morisi the changes.

Ulster's errors continued. They just could not get going and it was the increasingly confident visitors who looked the more likely side.

And it went from bad to worse when loose-head Declan Fitzpatrick was yellow-carded by Italian referee Stefano Penne late in the first half. Surprisingly it was Nigel Brady - a hooker - who was brought on for the scrum close to Ulster's line, with flanker Mike McComish the player sacrificed in this unusual tactical switch.

But that failed to save them; Ulster were adjudged guilty of yet another infringement and that was too much for the referee who raised his arm and ran behind the posts to confirm his award of a penalty try.

Burton added the easy extras and Ulster trailed 10-0.

Their first half was just about summed up with a horrible penalty scuff by Humphreys right on the interval. Like Ulster, it really didn't get off the ground.

Winger Whitten was withdrawn at the break, with Paddy Jackson - a stand-off by trade - deputising.

Treviso wanted to cash in on Fitzpatrick's absence, by failed to add to the seven points they had scored during his time in the sin-bin. They did have a chance though, but moments before the burly number one resumed along with McComish, Burton missed a penalty attempt from the 10-metre line.

Back to full-strength and 10 points in arrears with well over half an hour remaining, it was not a lost cause. But when a Humphreys penalty from 40 metres sailed just wide, one began to suspect it might not be Ulster's night.

Lewis Stevenson replaced Tim Barker as Brian McLaughlin tried desperately to kick-start the engine but nothing changed and when Burton added his third on-target kick of the contest the gap grew to 13 points.

A D'Arcy howler saw the differential stretched again, with Burton punishing the full-back by sprinting home unmolested and then converting his own score to leave Ulster trailing 20-0 with the game into its final quarter.

They tried to rally and when, after a move stemming from a Dan Tuohy take off the top of a line-out, they went through the phases, that passage finished with Pedrie Wannenburg crashing over at the posts. Humphreys converted to make it 20-7 with 13 minutes left.

A Nevin Spence charge almost produced a score, but Ulster knocked on deep in the guests' 22.

Their dander was up, though. A penalty in the 22 saw Humphreys put the ball into touch and although the line-out was scrappy, nevertheless Wannenburg grabbed his second try with five minutes left. Humphreys was unable to convert it but the gap was down to eight points.

Treviso and Burton had the last word, however, with a penalty completing Ulster's misery.

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