The final game of Ulster’s PRO14 campaign would perhaps have been more fitting instead for a pre-season friendly.
With neither side having anything to play for coming in, an already scrappy encounter between two much-changed teams was robbed of whatever intensity it once had when the Italian side were forced to play the entire second-half with 13-men.
Before those travails, Zebre had surprisingly started the game on the front-foot before Ulster belatedly but briefly found a rhythm with some eye-catching involvements from Academy men David McCann and Ethan McIlroy.
When the breakthrough did come, however, it was once again through the prolific John Andrew off the maul.
The lead was not the spark for a more wholly convincing showing and indeed Ulster straight away made a mess of the restart for a second time in succession. That miscue would allow Zebre to register their only points of the contest via a penalty and for much of the first-half 7-3 is where the score would stay. There were certainly flashes from the heavily-favoured hosts, most notably when the electric Robert Baloucoune got his hands on the ball, but too often Ulster didn’t appear able to stay on the same page for long.
While the maul looked like the best bet for a second score, when forced to break away and move it wider, things broke down, the sight of Robert Lyttle cutting inside at the very moment Stewart Moore passed to the touchline summing up the lack of cohesion.
While Zebre’s own attacks were increasingly rare, the northern province still had to rely on the aerobic capacity of lock Kieran Treadwell as he sprinted back to snaffle yet another loose ball that had been hacked dangerously towards Ulster’s posts.
Five minutes before the turn, though, the game would swing decisively in their favour. When last here, against Leinster a fortnight ago, it was Ulster counting the cost of a red card but here it was their visitors, Zebre reduced to 14 men when replacement hooker Marco Manfredi caught John Cooney with his elbow.
With their opposition a man down, Ulster made short work of adding their second, Mike Lowry going over at the end of a move he’d helped start with a smart tip-on pass.
Having originally believed they would not have to go down to 13 men despite having to opt for uncontested scrums due to the lack of a hooker, Zebre started the second-half two down and from there it was a procession.
Within five minutes of the second-half, the bonus-point was wrapped up with Robert Baloucoune first getting the score he deserved before Jordi Murphy had half a pitch and half his team-mates outside him but still plenty of space to go over himself.
That snapshot summed up the plight of Zebre’s 13-men for this was no longer a fair fight - indeed if this had been between two boxers it’d have been stopped. Instead we ploughed on, Zebre attacking when possible but always in trouble defensively.
Murphy dotted down for Ulster’s fifth and Rob Lyttle their sixth before, following a brief floodlight failure, things were rounded off by Brad Roberts’ first senior try. 49 points and, in truth, it could have been more.
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