Ulster trump Treviso to get back in European groove
Treviso 13-32 Ulster
Ulster returned from northern Italy with all five points on offer after putting an eminently forgettable first-half against Treviso behind them to bag four tries after the turn.
The circumstances and stakes were not as dramatic as the memorable turnaround in Oyonnax three weeks ago but this was certainly another Jekyll and Hyde act from Les Kiss's men.
Having led 6-3 at half-time, the second 40 saw tries from Sean Reidy, Darren Cave, Rory Scholes and, most notably of all, Stuart Olding. The gifted centre's first senior game in 10 months was an encouraging performance, capped off with the bonus point clinching score with seven minutes remaining, and even in a season when Ulster's midfield have excelled, his return to fold would provide a considerable fillip over the second half of the Pro12 campaign.
The game's opening was dominated by the boot, the ball returned back and forth with a frequency more akin to the weekend's Australian Open finals, and the fare would not improve markedly until after the half-time whistle.
With 11 minutes on the clock, a penalty from Ian Humphreys produced the game's first points after Treviso transgressed at the breakdown but the hosts spurned an opportunity to respond immediately when Clive Ross came in at the side. Going for the corner from a kickable position, the long lineout from Roberto Santamaria to Marco Lazzaroni stretched Ulster's defensive line but Cave and Ross combined to force a crucial turnover metres from the line.
Treviso's hooker departed before the end of disjointed first quarter but if not for a forward pass after a threatening break from Kiwi Jayden Hayward the Italians could have been in for the game's first try.
A dart up the blindside from Paul Marshall provided something of a spark but, with the kick ahead leaving Scholes with too much to do, the game was to this point a drab affair played out in a descending fog.
Craig Gilroy had to be alert to stop Treviso working an overlap on the right wing but, with Callum Black pinged, Hayward levelled the game.
As the restart sailed out on full, Les Kiss was surely looking forward to gathering his players at half-time.
Before the turn, however, a break from the returning Olding drew Treviso out of shape and, when substitute Luca Bigi was caught offside, Humphreys kicked his side into a three-point lead at the interval.
The stark improvement in the second-half was not immediately evident, a scrum penalty and a van der Merwe offside piggybacked together allowed Treviso to draw level once again, but from there a gulf in class was evident. Having gained some 25 metres with a rolling maul just moments prior, captain Rob Herring knew his side had the upperhand out of touch and went for the lineout once again from a kickable position.
In such a tight game, the call was a bold one but the hosts had no answer for the well-orchestrated set-piece and Sean Reidy was on hand to provide his second score in as many games.
Another break from Olding as the hour mark approached gained good ground and, as Paul Marshall directed traffic with real poise, Cave ran a superb line to dart across the whitewash.
With Humphreys converting, what had been an arm wrestle was now a chance for five points.
Ulster's scrum was an improving force in the contest and with the tight five putting Treviso under pressure on their own put in, the ball was forced from the set-piece quickly.
Combined with good line speed from the visitors, Cave rushed up to the line to force a hurried pass that was intercepted by Scholes.
The wing scampered home from distance to touch down under the posts.
Having first-hand experience of just how valuable a commodity bonus points can be from their Champions Cup exit, there was no let up from Ulster with the game very much in their control and when the all-important fourth try did arrive, it could hardly have come from a more welcome source.
Olding backed himself to finish between Hayward and Simone Ragusi when the ball had been moved from left to right and even the scuffed conversion could not wipe the smile from his face.
With three minutes remaining, Braam Steyn was mauled over in the corner by his fellow forwards for a consolation score but by that stage the visitor's job was very much done.
With Ulster's game versus Dragons on Friday the only in the Pro12 this week - the contest having been rearranged to accommodate the postponed trip to Oyonnax - the province will move from fifth in the table to top should they maintain their 100% home record in the league.
With three of the next four following that tussle with the Rodney Parade outfit also at Kingspan, it's little wonder Kiss has identified the stretch as defining for his team's season.
Treviso: J Hayward; L Nitoglia, E Bacchin, A Sgarbi ( C ), T Iannone; S Christie, A Lucchese; Alberto de Marchi, R Santamaria, S Ferrari; F Paulo, T Palmer,; Andrea de Marchi, M Lazzaroni, R Barbieri.
Replacements: L Bigi (for Santamaria, 16), C Traorè (for Alberto de Marchi), F Filippetto (for Ferrari, 40), J Montauriol (for Palmer, 63), B Steyn (for Sgarbi, 59) J Ambrosini (for Lucchese, 66), S Ragusi (for Nitoglia, 59), A Pratichetti (for Bacchin, 69)
Ulster: L Ludik; R Scholes, D Cave, S Olding, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring (c), R Lutton; A O'Connor, F van der Merwe; C Ross, S Reidy, R Wilson.
Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 73), A Warwick (for Black, 59), B Ross (for Lutton, 62), P Browne (for O'Connor, 62), L Dow (for Ross, 63), D Shanahan (for P Marshall, 73), L Marshall (for Humphreys, 60), J Stockdale (for Gilroy, 73)
Star man: Darren Cave
Match Rating: 6/10