Ulster Rugby look at positives
Published 21/12/2013 | 09:30
Ulster 13 Zebre 6: It was a win and for that all Ulster fans should be very thankful and just move on to the next challenge.
Ulster battled the conditions, their new combinations and a Zebre side who were intent on causing them just as much trouble as the last time they met, just before the two Heineken Cup tankings of Treviso.
That all seemed a distant memory last night at a windswept and rain-lashed Ravenhill and Ulster had to fight all the way to the end to ensure they escaped with the four points, while Zebre deserved their losing bonus.
Still, with Leinster losing and Glasgow's game being postponed, Ulster's efforts saw them move into second in the table which wasn't the worst return really.
At least something did stick on the night that was in it and Jared Payne's 29th minute try got Ulster back in the game while Ruan Pienaar's conversion and two penalties proved sufficient.
Indeed, Pienaar was one of the few to stand out – he finished the game at out-half – and his controlling influence was important along with Robbie Diack and Lewis Stevenson who both brought considerable muscularity on a night when it was needed.
And Paddy Wallace's 189th appearance was a positive one, though he naturally looked a bit rusty at times after such a long lay off. But, still, there was so much that just wasn't hitting the mark for the white shirts and they now must quickly regroup for next Saturday's visit to Leinster.
It's a tricky little segment of games now as Mark Anscombe mixes and matches his selection over the festive period while trying to engineer more wins in the PRO12 and yet remaining very aware that the last two rounds of European action are coming up on the rails next month.
The net result was seen last night as they battled to put much shape and control on the game though, in fairness, that was always a big ask in the conditions and against a robust Zebre effort just like last month's encounter.
Ulster's changed line-up were facing into the conditions from the off and while trying to keep the ball in hand, Craig Gilroy was pinged early and Luciano Orquera managed to land his fourth minute penalty by keeping it low.
Ulster were then pinged for what appeared to be offside as they struggled to get out of their half, but Orquera was wide with his longer range effort five minutes after his first shot.
Zebre kept up the momentum and a break from Chillon Alberto around the base of a ruck nearly put Orquera in and only Ulster's scramble defence managed to stop the out half and then turnover possession.
Then just before the quarter of an hour mark, Ulster were penalised at a scrum but with Orquera off getting attention centre Tommaso Iannone stepped up and bisected the posts to give Zebre a surprise 6-0 lead.
Ulster tried to get back into the game with one nice touch from Jared Payne putting Michael Allen into space and then Payne made a trademark ghosting break but knocked-on in contact.
The home side finally got some control on the game as it neared the half hour mark. A penalty against Zebre's Chistolini Dario saw Ruan Pienaar put the ball in the corner and from ball off the top of the lineout provided by Johann Muller, Ulster sent Paddy Wallace up the middle and then gradually churned their way towards Zebre's line.
Wallace eventually lost the ball later in the move as a possible score looked on, but from the resulting scrum, Ulster took the ball against the head but neither Michael Allen nor Robbie Diack were able to get the ball over.
Zebre were then pinged at a scrum and though Ulster again attacked off the resulting lineout after kicking to the corner, they were then penalised for over-zealous rucking and the Italians relieved the pressure.
Still, Ulster finally got it together after Alberto put a ball out on the full. From the lineout, James McKinney hit Payne with a flat pass and the Kiwi ghosted past three defenders and crossed under the posts.
Ruan Pienaar's conversion gave Ulster the lead for the first time but Zebre immediately had them under pressure as Sarto Leonardo's mazy run propelled the Italians right up to the home side's line.
Ulster dug deep to resist but impressively turned over a Zebre lineout after the Italians kicked for the corner from a penalty gained on Ulster's line.
The half ended with Ulster still battering away in Zebre's 22 but another shower hardly helped them and Payne was unable to hold the ball in one promising attack, meaning Anscombe's men trooped off leading by just 7-6.
That became 10-6 eight minutes after the restart when Pienaar landed his first penalty to make it 10-6 to Anscombe's men.
But from there a series of errors seemed to litter Ulster's game and any good work that was done tended to be undone by either dropped passes or turnovers.
Yes, there was some good Ulster work from the hard-driving Diack and Lewis Stevenson but Anscombe's side just couldn't get enough control or field position to make the intended impact.
And with Sarto again making worrying inroads not long after the hour mark, McKinney was hauled ashore and Pienaar moved to out-half.
It was from there that he put over his second penalty in the 70th minute and, well, that proved to be enough to get Ulster home though definitely not dry.