Cool Ulster back into their groove
Ulster 32-0 Zebre
Ulster got back to winning ways last night with a 32-0 victory over Zebre at the Kingspan Stadium but were made to wait until the final moments for their bonus-point score.
Man of the match Nick Williams had seemingly set the side well on their way with two first-half tries but the Italians were in a stubborn mood and Ulster had to wait half an hour between their second and third scores.
There were only two minutes left when Paul Marshall crossed for the all-important fourth score, the replacement scrum-half ending a fine passage of play from the backs to clinch all five points on offer.
After losing their previous two games, the victory was a vital tonic for the side who still sit fourth as the PRO12 enters a belated break period.
Against a struggling visiting outfit, fives points was the demanded return and, while the drama was saved for the final moments, Ulster seemed set for a routine victory in the opening quarter.
After spurning one opportunity when Paddy Jackson missed his touch from a penalty, when Zebre came in at the side again in the opening minutes, the out-half took the points and kicked Les Kiss' (right) men into a 3-0 lead.
With their visitors' discipline lacking, a first high tackle saw Ulster back in opposition territory and a second allowed Jackson to double the lead.
Yet more transgressions gave Ulster a promising line-out, with Robbie Diack's take setting up the maul.
Zebre could not contain a drive that was bolstered by the backs and Williams provided the first try.
A break from the Italians' No.8 Johan Meyer brought a rare spell of defence from Ulster but the danger was cleared and they were straight down the other end.
A strong tackle from Jacob Stockdale in the open field set up Williams and Chris Henry to force Zebre into conceding a penalty.
This time the maul gained little traction but Ulster were awarded the scrum. The hosts thought they had their second try through Rory Scholes but the score was chalked off thanks to crossing from Luke Marshall.
They would not have to wait long, however, a five metre scrum after Stuart Olding was held up over the line seemed the perfect moment for Williams to add a second.
The departing favourite duly obliged, carrying both Emiliano Caffini and Edoardo Padovani over the whitewash. Jackson's extras put Ulster in a 20-0 lead.
Quick ball from the scrum seemed of little interest to the visitors, making little effort to hook, and the tactic almost proved profitable just before the turn with a series of set-pieces in the corner but they knocked on.
It was no surprise to see Zebre make changes at half-time, especially at out-half where Dubliner Ian McKinley replaced Padovani for what was his first game on Irish soil in five years, and Ulster too called on their bench early in the second period.
Ricky Lutton was replaced by Andrew Warwick, giving the usual loosehead just over half an hour on his less familiar side of the scrum.
A break from Luke Marshall almost brought the third score, the centre who signed a new contract this week cutting through but he was hauled down.
The hosts still thought they had scored when Williams barged over for what would have been his hat-trick but it was disallowed after Rob Herring knocked on.
With an hour gone, Ulster finally added to their lead.
Scholes went it alone with Diack on his shoulder and was halted but smart play from Peter Browne saw the lock stretch over.
Just when Ulster seemed to be heading to an unsatisfactory four points, the fourth try arrived courtesy of substitute Paul Marshall.
As Olding launched one final thrust, space appeared in front of the centre who sent Darren Cave into the clear. Cave looked to Jackson, who had Olding continuing his run.
Olding gave the ball to Marshall and, after a brief bobble that had hearts in mouths, he was across.
Jackson converted and, with three weeks before the PRO12 resumes with a trip to Glasgow, the province moved into their first break of the campaign having at least restored some of their mid-season momentum.
Ulster: C Gilroy; R Scholes, L Marshall, S Olding, J Stockdale; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Herring (captain), R Lutton; P Browne, F van der Merwe; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams.
Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 57), C Black (for McCall, 67), A Warwick (for Lutton, 47), R Wilson (for Williams, 63), S Reidy (for Browne, 64), P Marshall (for Pienaar, 75), S Windsor, D Cave (for Marshall, 62).
Zebre: M Muliaina; U Beyers, G Bisegni, T Castello, K van Zyl; E Padovani, F Semenzato; A de Marchi, O Fabiani, D Chistolini; Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (captain); E Caffini, F Ruzza, J Meyer.
Replacements: E Coria (for Fabiani, 73), G Roan (for de Marchi, 40), P Ceccarelli (for Chistolini, 53), G Koegelenberg (for Geldenhuys, 67), F Cristiano (for Ruzza, 64), L Burgess (for Semenzato, 53), I McKinley (for Padovani, 40), G Toniolatti (for Castello, 68)
Match Rating: 7/10
Man of the match: Nick Williams