Ulster Rugby coach Mark Anscombe won't be impressed with fringe options
Just four days before Christmas, Ulster seemed full of the joys of the season in the opening half an hour of their game against Zebre last night as they gifted their visitors the opportunity to kick themselves into an early lead.
Ulster belatedly managed to overturn the deficit, but hardly in what could be considered a convincing manner, failing to make the game safe until the final whistle.
Indeed there was little festive revelry to be had in the stands of Ravenhill as, in the fourth of their quartet of consecutive fixtures against Italian opponents, Ulster toiled.
With nine changes to the side that returned from Treviso having ensured a maximum haul from the European double-header, some disjointed play will have perhaps been expected but the apparent lack of intensity in what was a poor game will not have impressed head coach Mark Anscombe.
With a swirling wind and persistent rain not helping matters, the home side quickly grew tired of the persistent ringing of the referee's whistle in their collective ears as the penalty count inexorably climbed higher.
First Luciano Orquera, then Tommaso Iannone, took advantage of Ulster indiscretions by defying the weather conditions and successfully kicking penalties, pushing their side into a six point lead.
Ulster's scrum, deprived of John Afoa, Rory Best and Declan Fitzpatrick for a variety of reasons, did not seem to be holding up well and the more battle-hardened Italians took advantage of their opponents inexperienced front-row comprising Callum Black, Niall Annett and Ricky Lutton.
There was little cohesion in the backline either and weather dictated that Ulster's more compact style could not utilise the skills of neither Craig Gilroy or Michael Allen.
As the game edged towards half-time without any form of response, there was a time when a hitherto implausible upset looked increasingly possible.
Then came the intervention of Jared Payne.
The Kiwi, playing once again at outside centre, displayed afresh why there is such excitement surrounding his imminent eligibility for the Irish side as he danced through the Zebre defence, cleverly using Paddy Wallace as decoy, to scored the game's only try.
Ruan Pienaar converted but the confines of the Ulster dressing room at half-time will scarcely have been a more comfortable place for it.
A contest in which many would have hoped to see Ulster chasing a try-bonus became solely about securing the four points shortly after the restart when it became clear there was to be little improvement.
A pair of Pienaar penalties after the turn ensured that Zebre were kept at bay but the visitors did leave Ravenhill with the solace of a losing bonus point.
For a fixture that was sandwiched between the glamorous Heineken Cup and a pair of interprovincial derbies against Leinster and Munster ahead, perhaps the seemingly flat performance was, if not expected, understandable but, with so many less familiar faces being given an opportunity, Anscombe will be disappointed that there were no performances that demanded future inclusion.
There were enough positives that the Ulster head coach will not be forced to channel his inner-Grinch when the team assemble to review the video of last night's proceedings, but the majority of the plusses were from the established stars not given the night off after their successful European exploits.
Payne's try illuminated the contest, much in the same way he has illuminated Ulster's entire campaign, and there were further signs that he is equally comfortable whether deployed at fullback or at number 13.
Ruan Pienaar's mastery of the poor conditions was at times majestic to behold as he repeatedly pinned Zebre back into the corner with an accurately deployed kick.
Robbie Diack started with the intensity expected of an unproven youngster, earning the man-of-the-match award in the process, while both Andrea Mancini and Tommaso D'Apice will give thanks to a higher power if they never have to prepare for another line-out throw with Johann Muller and Lewis Stevenson staring back.
Of course, the enduring memory of an eminently forgettable return to PRO12 action will be the contribution made by Paddy Wallace.
Ulster's most capped player returned after nine months out to pull on the white jersey for the 189th time.
The classy inside centre made light of his lengthy absence by immediately appearing back up to speed and gave a showing of quality.
Mark Anscombe occasionally appears spoilt for choice in the midfield but Wallace confirmed this week that he has no plans to retire soon and what a story it would be if he could contribute in these twilight years of his career.
The head coach will have little time for sentiment in the coming days however, Leinster await next Saturday and will require a performance of considerable improvement.