For all his feats in an Ulster jersey, Marcell Coetzee continues to break new ground, last night becoming the first Ulster player to score four tries in a Guinness PRO14 game.
The Springbok was already in a relatively rich vein of try-scoring form this year, scoring four tries in his last four games but, in Parma against Zebre, he doubled that tally in the space of a mere hour.
His team-mates would add five more - Stewart Moore, Luke Marshall, Bill Johnston, Ethan McIlroy, Dave Shanahan all going over - as the northern province exceeded a half century of points to further widen the gaping chasm between themselves, Leinster, and the chasing pack in PRO14’s Conference A.
From early on, it was a night when Dan McFarland’s forwards sensed there was plenty of reward on offer.
A cross-field kick from Johnston to McIlroy was the only real time any width was required in their first period of pressure.
Otherwise it was all hard-earned yards from the big ball-carriers. The biggest of them all finishing it off when Coetzee, the ball squeezed between bicep and forearm, wriggled across the line for his first on the night.
Zebre would, briefly, recover to score, what even in comprehensive defeat, was the most impressive try of the game.
It started innocuously enough with Antoinio Rizzi launching a shot to nothing but when Ulster dallied in defence, Pierre Bruno pounced. The wing somehow scooped up a bouncing ball, pinned it to his hip and kept it there as he pirouetted to the ground for a try that required second viewing to be sure it was possible.
It certainly seemed to fool the TMO and referee for a time such was the audacious skill of the gather, even if the Ulster coaches were likely less than thrilled with the confusion prompted by an old fashioned up and under.
Despite the tied score, Ulster were clearly content to keep turning down three-pointers when they were on offer, eventually getting their reward.
At the third time of asking, they got their reward, the maul rolling all the way across the whitewash for Coetzee to bag his second of the evening.
When Antonio Rizzi had a few minutes to forget, the game had swung decidedly in Ulster’s favour. First the Zebre number ten pushed a testing penalty attempt across the posts and then came the real damage.
The Italian play-maker was charged down by Mike Lowry, the ball just bouncing away from the sideline to allow the Ulster full-back to gather. Rizzi looked like the odds-on favourite to catch Lowry’s inside pass but when he couldn’t take it cleanly, Stewart Moore was on hand to sweep things up and dot down.
If he plays another decade for Ulster, the young centre won’t be treated to an easier score.
Ulster’s forwards were pulling their opposing counterparts from pillar to post with tight carries around the ruck and, with Zebre noticeably tiring, it seemed the visitors were constantly playing with the comfort of penalty advantage.
It was from one such transgression in the opposition ‘22’ that the fourth try would come. Again Ulster going to touch, again Greg Jones taking John Andrew’s throw and again Coetzee splintering the maul defence for his hat-trick.
For their third game in the last four, Ulster had secured their try bonus-point before the half-time interval and things were all over bar the shouting. When their fifth score of the game arrived just six minutes after the turn, the only surprise was that it didn’t come via the maul.
The set-piece once again looked likey to reward some forward endeavour, though this time the ball spilled loose as they ploughed forward.
Though with Mathewson alert enough to tidy up and send the lurking Johnston across for a walk-in score, the end result was no different.
Just as that attack had begun with a Coetzee turnover, so too did the passage that brought the sixth, this time Luke Marshall scoring in the same corner.
Both coaches emptied the benches at that point and it was replacement scrum-half Nicolo Casilio who got Zebre’s second score.
Coetzee got his record-setting fourth before his own evening’s work was brought to a close with 15 minutes remaining.
Zebre, you can imagine, were more than happy to see him go.
Impressive young wing McIlroy would mark his own red-letter day - in his case a first senior start - with a score after Coetzee departed, while replacement scrum-half Dave Shanahan also got in on the act, but both the result, and indeed the man of the match award, were long since settled.
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