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Zebre v Ulster: Robbie Diack won't take eye off the ball

By Michael Sadlier

There is no hiding from it, this looks an easy enough win for Ulster as they meet whipping boys Zebre today.

Yes, but Robbie Diack won’t be found admitting as much.

The long-serving South African back-rower — who is making his 150th league appearance for Ulster and packing down with Alan O’Connor in the second row — insists that Les Kiss’ squad need to be cautious as they are the ones who go into this game with far more at stake than the internationally weakened Italians, who have won just once in 13 games.

Diack says that Ulster will be feeling the heat as they seek to run up a third bonus-point win in succession in what has become a campaign of catching up regarding their hopes of a top-four finish.

“There is a lot of pressure on us after our wins over Edinburgh and Glasgow,” the 31-year-old said of being fifth in the table.

“We know that their (Zebre) squad hasn’t played well over the last number of weeks, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for us.”

True, but Zebre have managed to cough up 152 points over their last three PRO12 games while conceding a whopping 21 tries.

And with Charles Piutau back in the side and Ruan Pienaar looking extra sharp — unfortunately, Marcell Coetzee is a late withdrawal due to illness — this is a no-brainer for Ulster and anything less than five points will be a shocker and, as it happens, a potentially season-wrecking outcome as they seek to rack up try-bonus victories while 10 points back from fourth-placed Scarlets.

Diack is understandably keen to downplay things but also knows that this three-game segment — Ulster play Zebre again for their game in hand after Friday’s visit of 11th-placed Treviso — is all about hammering the Italians and, ideally, coming away with 15 points.

“We can’t look at these games collectively like that as just bringing us 15 points,” he pointed out.

“It’s just about focusing on each individual game and this time it’s an away game in Italy.

“And we’ve been there and lost before (the embarrassing 13-6 reverse in September 2014, though a repeat today seems unfathomable).”

The fact that Ulster have not actually produced an impressive 80-minute performance for some time is also up for discussion.

“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at ourselves after Glasgow,” said the player who is believed to have a new deal to stay on at Ulster.

“Unfortunately we haven’t been playing our best rugby and have had patches here and there.

“We’re looking to try and rectify that.”

With the quality available to Kiss — Stuart Olding is also back in a starting side which includes 150 cap man Tommy Bowe, while Jared Payne returns from November’s kidney issue on the bench — the only apparent danger appears to be the possibility of Ulster undermining themselves.

That shouldn’t happen and this trip ought to be another five-point win.

Ulster team & replacements to play Zebre, Guinness PRO12 Round 16, Sunday 26th February, Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, 12.30pm GMT, Sky Sports:

(15-9): J Stockdale, T Bowe, L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau, P Nelson, R Pienaar;

(1-8): A Warwick, R Herring (captain), W Herbst, R Diack, A O'Connor, C Ross, C Henry, S Reidy;

Replacements (16-23): J Andrew, C Black, R Lutton, K Treadwell, R Wilson, P Marshall, J Payne, D Busby.

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