Ulster 31 Aironi 10: Ulster warmed the hearts of the 7,494 supporters who braved Ravenhill's bitter cold last night by banking five Heineken Cup points against Aironi.
The same outcome in next Saturday’s return in Monza could just see Ulster lead Pool 4 going into 2012.
They were convincing winners against opponents who had a decent pack but nothing much behind it. They never really looked like they believed they might cause an upset.
Ulster’s start made plain their determination to take the fizz out of Aironi as early as possible. Straight from Tito Tebaldi’s miscued kick-off Stephen Ferris caught the ball and went on a charge.
Ruan Pienaar hoisted a box kick to test the guests and the first scrum of the night saw Aironi penalised on their own 10-metre line. It was well within Ian Humphreys’ range but once more the home side confirmed their appetite for tries by opting to put the ball into touch on the 22 rather than between the posts.
All of this in the opening couple of minutes. Impressive, high-tempo opening salvo.
They were all over Aironi and looked to have the beating of them fore and aft. Up front Ferris, Chris Henry and John Afoa were much involved in the first quarter skirmishes whilst behind the pack Pienaar and Humphreys appeared to be in tandem. Darren Cave was prominent in midfield, too. Good signs.
Frustratingly, a lot of their good early work was negated by the concession of cheap penalties, two of them at moments when Ulster had worked hard to carve out a good attacking position.
Undaunted, they continued to dictate territorially and in possession and when Craig Gilroy was tackled around the neck as he broke on the left the penalty was kicked into touch once again.
Finally, with 16 minutes gone, they broke the deadlock when Ferris raced away to score in the corner following a fine example of the ball being moved quickly and accurately from right to left.
Humphreys converted magnificently from touch to put Ulster into a 7-0 lead.
Aironi were limited but dogged, so although their forays forward were infrequent they made the most of a 21st minute visitation which earned them a penalty. Tebaldi goaled to make it 7-3 and might then have trimmed the lead to a point had he been on target seven minutes later.
He missed, however, as did his opposite number, two minutes later, and Tebaldi promptly made it a hat-trick of miscues by the place-kickers.
On 36 minutes the guests were reduced to 14 when full-back Guilio Toniolatti was yellow-carded for going into a ruck from the side and kicking the ball and Ulster made the advantage count.
They encamped in the Aironi 22 and patiently went through a series of disciplined phases which tested the defence beyond breaking point. Having waited and worked the opening it was full-back Adam D’Arcy who took Cave’s final pass to score in the corner on the stroke of half-time.
Leading 12-3 and half-way to a four-try bonus, Ulster’s start to the second period was as intense as had been their start to the first.
This time, though, it bore fruit quickly with Andrew Trimble showing his strength in powering out of a tackle to score in the 42nd minute to become Ulster’s most prolific Heineken Cup try-scorer with 15 touchdowns.
Paul Marshall, debutant Stefan Terblanche and Tom Court entered the fray replacing Pienaar, Trimble and McAllister for the final half-hour as Ulster upped their pursuit of the bonus.
Nevin Spence exited injured shortly afterwards, with Paddy Jackson deputising and two minutes later Ulster banked their bonus when Marshall nipped over from a quickly-taken penalty after another big surge by the home pack off a line-out forced an error from the Italians. Job done
They did not let up or ease off, however. Robbie Diack and Lewis Stevenson took over from Ferris and Dan Tuohy as Ulster repeatedly threatened. A fifth try had to come and on 69 minutes it did, with Jackson finishing after a great offload by Diack.
Tommaso D’Apice’s 78th minute try, converted by Naas Olivier, hardly raised a murmur from the freezing crowd but the announcement that — for the second week in a row — Ferris had won man of the match award raised a hearty roar.
The real prize, though — in the form of those five points — belonged to the team.