Ulster fail to deliver landslide victory
Ulster 19 Treviso 7
As Northern Ireland's politicians faced frayed nerves at election counts throughout the land last night, there was similar tension at Kingspan Stadium as Ulster didn't get the returns they were after against Treviso.
In horrendous conditions that will have been welcomed by the Italian visitors, Ulster's forwards produced the physicality required for the weather but, while the win was never in doubt, they couldn't secure the vital fourth try in a frustrating last quarter that would have brought another bonus point.
Having banked 15 points from the last 15 available, a fourth consecutive full haul would have established a new record for the province but, after scores from Jared Payne, Sean Reidy and Charles Piutau, they were unable to finish the job.
While Les Kiss's side would have remained in fifth place regardless of the result against the PRO12's second from bottom team, a fourth win on the spin means they sit just one point behind Scarlets who occupy the last play-off spot and visit Leinster tonight.
As the heavens opened in Belfast early in the afternoon, the game was never likely to produce much of a spectacle.
A high tackle from Roger Wilson on Michael Tagicakibau gave Tito Tibaldi an early shot at the posts but his effort drifted off target.
With both the ball and conditions under foot slippery, there was more juggling than in your average circus in the early going with a mix up between Peter Nelson and Ruan Pienaar creating one nervy moment for the hosts.
Knowing that a bonus point win was the only acceptable conclusion, Ulster tried to show intent early despite the weather, their ambition undone when Pienaar uncharacteristically kicked the ball dead when looking to chip into the corner from a penalty.
When Kiss's side did play from touch, their maul was proving effective, although they were too frequently out of sync at the line-out.
But just when it seemed the PA announcer would spend more time announcing illegally parked cars than scores, Ulster's scrum earned the first points. With a quarter gone, they opted to test the Treviso eight and, after Pienaar and Marcell Coetzee both reached for the ball, the scrum-half took control and in two simple passes, Payne marked his return to the starting side by sliding across the whitewash and through the puddles to score.
A second try before the turn would have been a huge boost to Ulster, playing with the wind as they were, but it would not arrive despite sustained pressure.
With the forwards making the hard yards, Ulster spent much of the second quarter camped in the Treviso 22 but a spill from Coetzee and penalty concession by Wilson saw the lead sit at just seven.
After the players scampered for the changing room, and 15 dry jerseys, the second-half started in a similarly frustrating fashion.
Again Ulster went to the corner early but were quickly turned over at the line-out.
Six minutes into the half, however, Treviso flanker Francesco Minto was binned for a no arms tackle but Ulster could still make no headway from a five metre scrum.
It was becoming a familiar refrain for the heavy favourites but the all-important second score would come with just under half an hour to go.
Again in close quarter combat, Reidy was the man who eventually muscled his way over.
With Kiss switching Stuart Olding into out-half, it was he who almost brought a third before Treviso were returned to a full complement but after a break through the heart of the visitors' line, he just couldn't get the ball into the hands of Payne making the trailing run.
Just as Minto came back onto the field, Olding would create a try though, his chip over the top brilliantly gathered by Piutau in the corner despite the soap-like condition of the ball.
The Kiwi's slide across the whitewash brought a long look from the TMO but the third score was eventually awarded.
Despite the attention he gets from opposition defences, it was the former All Black's seventh try of the season, leaving him as the side's joint-top scorer.
Pienaar couldn't convert, and as the game lost some momentum with substitutions, Treviso scored their only try of the contest with only 10 minutes to go.
Filo Paulo was the man who eventually crashed over the top but of more concern to Kiss will have been the time that slipped off the clock during the passage.
In the end, it seemed Ulster could have played long into the night without bagging a fourth.
In a wild endgame, and with the clock long since having turned red, they tried time after time to force a dramatic finish only to find themselves making little ground in their own 22.
All in all, a bit of a dampener.
The players will no doubt have a vested interest in events at the RDS tonight, where a win for their inter-pro rivals Leinster would leave Ulster able to climb back into the play-off spots next weekend.
Italian opposition will again pitch up in Belfast, this time Zebre in a game rearranged for next Saturday after the original encounter was postponed in November.
ULSTER: C Gilroy; A Trimble, J Payne, S Olding, C Piutau; P Nelson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Herring (capt), W Herbst; K Treadwell, F van der Merwe; R Wilson, S Reidy, M Coetzee.
REPLACEMENTS: J Andrew (for Herring 71), A Warwick (for Black, 53), R Lutton (for Herbst, 53), P Browne (for Reidy, 66), C Ross (for Wilson, 48), P Marshall (for Pienaar, 75), L Marshall (for Nelson, 54), J Stockdale (for Gilroy, 61)
TREVISO: L Sperandino; A Esposito, T Iannone, M Tagicakibau, A Buondonno; I McKinley, T Tebaldi; F Zani, L Bigi, T Pasquali; F Paulo, D Budd (capt); M Lazzaroni, R Barbieri.
REPLACEMENTS: R Santamaria (for Bigi,55) R Acosta, (for Zani, 61) M Zanusso (for Pasquali, 55), F Gerosa (for Minto, 71), G Zannini (for Barbieri, 59), G Brozini (for Tibaldi, 59), A Sgarbi, A Pratichetti (for Iannone, 55)
Referee: D Jones (WRU)
Man of the match: Ruan Pienaar