Massive Zebre win fails to cover up Ulster cracks
Zebre 17 Ulster 40
In an ultimate damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario, Ulster took maximum points from yesterday's trip to Zebre but were far from impressive over the course of a 40-17 win in Parma.
The game began as planned with quick-fire scores through Chris Henry and Ruan Pienaar, but from there it was a slog for the province who only pulled away after Zebre dominated for over half an hour.
While Italy's flagging Six Nations campaign has drawn far more attention, their two clubs are involved in their own battle to show they belong at this level, with Ulster's six tries and 40 points about par for the course against the PRO12's worst side.
That Les Kiss's men won by such a margin of points with a performance that arguably would have brought a loss against any other top-level side, shows the continuing problems at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
Ulster had to make two changes to their planned team, losing replacement lock Pete Browne to injury on Friday before Marcell Coetzee took ill before the flight on Saturday.
It looked like it would matter little as Ulster quickly set about dismantling a team that have shipped an average of over 50 points during their games in 2017.
For all the backline talent on show, their opening score was all about forward grunt as the pack powered their way through a disintegrating Zebre maul defence for Henry to touch down.
With Pienaar notching the touchline conversion, the visitors were up and running after just seven minutes.
When Ulster next tried to set up the catch and drive, though, they were turned over at the line-out.
It would be the most temporary of reprieves, as Ulster launched a lethal counter-attack off the clearing kick.
With Tommy Bowe and Jacob Stockdale combining well, Charles Piutau powered his way up the wing with Pienaar running a fine line off his shoulder.
The All Black and Springbok made no mistake in the execution, with Pienaar crossing the whitewash next to the posts.
The conversion kept Ulster on a point a minute pace, but they gave the Italians a foothold back into the game.
A Luke Marshall knock on gave Zebre a scrum and, with Ulster's goal-line defence less than robust, Guglielmo Palazzani was able to roll across the line.
The score gave the hosts a tangible lift and they attacked the Ulster line again soon after with only Stockdale's interception sparing his side having to start over.
They remained, however, alarmingly poor with basic errors allowing Zebre to rack up huge swathes of possession.
When Clive Ross was pinged on the deck, the resulting chip over penalty from Palazzani meant it was just a four-point game.
When Piutau was bundled forcefully into touch, it seemed to sum up Ulster's second quarter, and even when Zebre tried to gift their visitors a score from the resulting line-out, Ulster politely declined with yet another error after Olding went himself and lost the ball in contact.
Even in Ulster's most impressive wins this season they have allowed teams back into contests but, even in that context, this was a particularly shocking turn of events.
Kiss, who spoke at length last week about the need to stamp out even the hint of complacency, will surely have had a word or two for his players at half-time.
Poor throughout the season, this was a Zebre side down to the bare bones, but they still started the second-half in a similar vein.
After half an hour without a point though, Ulster were finally back in business four minutes after the restart.
A Zebre knock-on gave them a scrum in a promising position, allowing Bowe to pop up for Olding running against the grain in a well-worked Ulster move. With Zebre's resistance cracked, the bonus point was not long coming with top-scorer Stockdale's seventh of the year after another scrum on the five metre line.
With Pienaar galloping from ruck to ruck on the try-line, the young full-back eventually picked the line that broke through under the posts.
Even with the job done, Ulster failed to impress in the final quarter, the one bright point being the return to action of Irish international centre Jared Payne from a lengthy lay-off.
The naturalised Kiwi, a key man for both Les Kiss and Joe Schmidt, had missed three months with a kidney injury and came off the bench at the hour mark, but not before Zebre had added another.
With Ulster's midfield defence absent, Mattia Bellini danced through from deep to score, reducing the deficit to just 11.
Ulster would make the score look more comfortable when Robbie Diack, making his 150th league appearance for the province, went over in the corner after good work from Piutau.
To finish off, there was a nice moment in a forgettable team performance for former Ireland under-20 back-three player David Busby who, on for his debut, marked the occasion with a try and the last points of the game.
In the end, a wholly convincing result after a far from convincing performance.
Zebre: D Berryman; M Bellini, T Boni, M Pratichetti, L Greeff; S Bordoli, G Palazzani; B Postiglioni, O Fabiani, G Roan; G Koegelenberg, V Bernabo; D Bergamin, J Meyer, F Ruzza
Replacements: S Tobias (for Fabiani, 76), A De Marchi (for Postiglioni, 63), B le Roux (for Roan, 48), J Furno (for Bernabo, 61), D Fragnito (for Bergamin, 67), C Engelbrecht (for Berryman, 58), T Castello (for M Pratichetti, 50), S Balocchi (for Greef, 64)
Ulster: J Stockdale; T Bowe, L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Nelson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Herring (c), W Herbst; R Diack, A O'Connor; C Ross, C Henry, S Reidy
Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 55), C Black (for Warwick, 64), R Lutton (for Herbst, 33), K Treadwell (for O'Connor, 72), R Wilson (for C Henry, 60), P Marshall (for P Nelson, 72) J Payne (for L Marshall, 60), D Busby (for Piutau, 75).