Ulster Rugby must do better
Zebre 11 Ulster 19: A job done, yes, but not well." Paraphrased, that was Mark Anscombe's assessment of Saturday afternoon's game against Zebre in Parma. Four points gained, fair enough, but there were far too many errors for the no-nonsense New Zealander's liking.
Even though they had to dig out this win minus the services of front-liners like captain Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Rory Best, Chris Henry, Iain Henderson, Nick Williams and Stuart Olding, the coach was not pleased.
Zebre fielded an experienced side crammed with Italian internationals plus a former All Black in scrum-half Brendon Leonard. Against that they were forced to make a late change when full-back Ruggero Trevisan bowed out with his place going to Guglielmo Palazzani who is normally a nine.
The 22-year-old certainly did not look out of place in this unfamiliar role, capping a good afternoon's work by scoring the hosts' try in the 55th minute, thereby trimming Ulster's lead to eight points.
Indeed, had replacement out-half Luciano Orquera been able to add the extras – which was a wholly reasonable expectation of a 37 times-capped Italian international – that would have made the score 19-13 with 24 minutes remaining.
There was never any reason to believe this would be other than a slog, Zebre's recent results having confirmed that they can be expected to put up a fight against any visitors to their Stadio XXV Aprile home.
Fresh from his Carton House sojourn with Ireland during the Guinness Series, Paddy Jackson's first outing in an Ulster shirt since October 25 saw him land four of his five penalty attempts as well as converting Darren Cave's sumptuous 28th minute try.
That came about as a result of a delightfully disguised pass by Jackson to Craig Gilroy, whose beautiful run – which completely fooled the Italian defenders – and feed put the centre in, this after a worryingly slow start by Ulster. Finally they had begun to play a little, giving rise to the hope there might be better to come. They flattered to deceive; the anticipated improvement never materialised.
At the outset, Zebre – second-bottom of the table – had come at them like proverbial bats out of hell, dictating the terms and pace as a result. But for all of their superiority in terms of territory and possession, an early penalty from 40 metres by impressive centre Gonzalo Garcia was their only reward. One wonders how they would have fared had they been more direct rather than lateral in their play?
Jackson promptly cancelled that out, whereupon Garcia restored his side's three-point advantage only to see the Ulster out-half level the scores again. And then came that glorious Cave try which enabled the guests to turn round leading 13-6 and seemingly on the up following an encouraging final 15 minutes to that first period.
They were control at half-time, both on the scoreboard and, finally, on the pitch where they had the better of things in the set-pieces and therefore ought to have been able to build from there.
They didn't. For although two more Jackson penalties in the 48th and 51st minutes stretched the lead to 13 points at 19-6, that was to be their lot.
That deserved try by Palazzani gave the hosts fresh heart and but for some wasteful out of hand kicking by Orquera they might well have had more to show for their endeavours in which captain Marco Bortolami and Mauro Bergamasco at five and six respectively, were central.
As it was, neither side managed to add a point in the final 25 minutes. Jackson blotted his copybook by fluffing a relatively straightforward penalty, while Zebre continued to be wasteful at the end of sometimes-lengthy periods of ball retention. That said, Ulster's post-interval defence close to their own line was very good.
With this having been his side's dress-rehearsal before returning to the European stage on Saturday when they host Treviso in the Heineken Cup, Anscombe was not pleased.
"It's a job done, I suppose, but done ugly. We had a poor start; we didn't have any ball for the first 20 minutes. Then we started playing some reasonable rugby and putting some pressure on them, but we didn't look after it long enough.
"We put on a bit of pressure and scored a nice try that took us into a 13-6 lead at the break. But then although we'd talked about the importance of a good start, we just allowed them to play too much.
"We dropped our standards, it's as simple as that," he said.
But finding a positive he was able to add: "It's not an easy place to come to and we've got four points.
"We're at the right end of the table and there's five or six more months of it. It's early days – we're not half-way yet, but at least we're at the right end of where we need to be," the coach added.
In addition, he was hopeful that hooker Rob Herring will be fit to face Treviso after suffering a minor knock in Parma.
Ulster's women lost 41-7 against a strong Leinster side at Ravenhill.
The Leinster team, packed with Irish Internationals, ran in seven tries in the Inter-Pro clash.
The visitors were 24 points ahead after 20 minutes and went on to take a 36-0 interval lead.
Ulster contained Leinster for most of the second half and were rewarded late on when good work by Grace Davitt and Jemma Jackson resulted in Imogen Porter diving over for Davitt to goal.