Don't freeze out the Italians: Les Kiss warns after Zebre victory
Ulster 68 Zebre 21
Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss has said the PRO12 and its teams must do all they can to improve the competition's Italian involvement.
After watching his side set new Ulster records for both points and tries in Saturday's 68-21 demolition of Zebre, the province are back in the top four and winners of five in a row, but it was a game that in youth sports would have raised calls for a mercy rule.
Always a struggle for the visitors during the Test window, Zebre had nine players in the Italian squad that met France on Saturday and, without the depth to cope, were forced to call four club players into their panel.
The result was an overwhelmingly one-sided contest with Ulster crossing the whitewash 10 times as both Luke Marshall and Charles Piutau bagged a brace.
Since the PRO12 added a pair of Italian teams in 2010/11, one has always finished bottom of the table and it has been four seasons since the duo didn't occupy 11th and 12th positions come season's end.
After yet another drubbing, Zebre have now shipped more points in their last six league games than any of the top four have all season.
Kiss, however, thinks calls that they can't compete at this level are harsh.
"We've got to accept that they are part of this league," he said. "The PRO12 is built in a certain way and it serves a purpose in the rugby programme in Europe. That's part of the deal.
"I don't think they'll be happy with that but as long as they're in there we support them.
"They can be a tough side but when the internationals are gone, it does make it hard for them without a doubt.
"We've just got to say, that's what it is."
On his own side's performance, Kiss couldn't help but be pleased with how his players rounded out a block of five games with a win that means they have dropped just one point since the start of February while reigniting their play-off hopes.
"We look at the block of five games and we got everything bar one point so we're happy with that," he added.
"I think the boys should take a lot of credit. Seven or eight weeks ago we really stripped the game down and went back to basics.
"We made a commitment to get those things right and that allows those guys to express themselves.
"We're not going to lose the run of ourselves.
"In all honesty that's what we would expect from the last five games and now we've got it.
"We'll make sure we enjoy the break and come back and work hard again."
With their season having teetered on the brink thanks to four straight defeats after Christmas, Kiss thinks the winning run has restored the self-belief in the squad, even if he wasn't pleased with some aspects of the defence after Zebre's third score denied his side the history of setting their biggest ever victory.
"These guys have been brilliant the last number of weeks, but as I've said we've been building confidence, growing the parts of our game that we like and reducing the parts that we don't like.
"The ambition in the game, I thought it went really well and I thought Stu Olding went really well at ten.
"At times we still weren't as good as we would have liked to have been but it's not a night to be nitpicking.
"It's not often you score ten tries, it's something we should enjoy."
While Ulster now have a week off before facing Newport Gwent Dragons next Friday, the enthusiasm over the win was tempered by bad news on the injury front.
It is suspected that Tommy Bowe has fractured a bone in his leg coming off the bench for Ireland against Wales on Friday night, while Marcell Coetzee departed Saturday's game with a knee injury.
"There's a little bit of concern about Marcell," said Kiss of his influential back-rower who only recently returned from nine months out.
"We've said just let it settle, get a scan on Monday and see how it is.
"He was a bit down, but he was happy the boys won.
"Tommy is going to see the surgeon on Monday just to check out a possible fracture. We will get more clarity on then.
"It does not look like it is going to be good."
ULSTER: J Payne; C Gilroy, J Stockdale, L Marshall, C Piutau S Olding, R Pienaar; C Black, R Herring (c), W Herbst; K Treadwell, A O'Connor; R Diack, C Henry, M Coetzee.
REPLACEMENTS: J Andrew (for Henry, 46), A Warwick (for Black, 46), R Ah You (for Herbst, 46), F van der Merwe (for O'Connor, 65), C Ross (for Coetzee, 19), P Marshall (for Pienaar, 46), P Nelson (for Payne, 57) D Busby (for Piutau, 72)
ZEBRE: D Berryman; M Bellini, T Boni, T Castello, L Greef; S Bordoli, C Engelbrecht; A de Marchi, O Fabiani, B le Roux, Q Geldenhuys (c), V Bernabo, M Cornelli, G Koegelenberg, F Ruzza
REPLACEMENTS: L Ferraro (for Fabiani, 62) B Postiglioni (for De Marchi, 57), G Roan (for Le Roux, 58), J Furno (for Bernabo, 55), J Nibert (for Cornelli, 62), G Palazzani (for Englebrecht, 40), M Pratichetti (for Boni, 62) M Mornas
Referee: I Davies (WRU)
Man of the match: Stuart Olding