Ulster show hunger and lay groundwork for challenge
Ulster unsurprisingly racked up their first win of the PRO12 at the Kingspan Stadium last night by seeing off Zebre with a five-try bonus point victory which contained moments to savour and a few that might be best forgotten.
Despite putting together some wonderful moments from open play – Dan Tuohy's second half try being a real peach of a counter-attack, as was Craig Gilroy's in the first half – there were again some worrying moments of apparent rustiness to their game which will need to be ironed out ahead of the trip to Cardiff Blues next Friday.
Still, one shouldn't really carp too much as the home side – on the day when it became clearer that interim coach Les Kiss will depart soon for a, as yet, unspecified succession strategy – put together a highly efficient display which proved more than enough for the Italians despite them snatching the lead in the first half.
Tries from Nick Williams, Gilroy, Robbie Diack, Andrew Trimble and Tuohy got Ulster home and dry with Ian Humphreys adding some extremely well struck conversions. Ulster's scrum was also far more solid than last week at the Scarlets while their bench again made an impact.
Trimble again shone as did substitute Louis Ludik, who came on for the injured Darren Cave.
However, they were indeed fortunate when Ricky Andrew collided with a mid-air Brendon Leonard in the second half which only saw the full-back shown yellow when, in a distinctly familiar incident last season, Jared Payne had been sent off against Saracens.
Ulster will also be disappointed at leaving a couple of tries out on the park but, again, the win was secured and the bonus point banked which will do very nicely for the time being.
After a minute's applause to mark the impending two-year anniversary of Nevin Spence's death, Ulster came out of the blocks quickly but really should have had a try on three minutes after Cave shrugged off a defender and passed to skipper Rory Best who, on his first appearance of the season, knocked on at the line and a great chance was lost.
Still, from the scrum, Ulster wheeled the set-piece, stole the ball and Williams erupted off the back of the scrum to score.
Humphreys added the conversion and Ulster were up and running. But the Italians immediately hit back when replacement number eight Samuela Vunisa broke through the middle of a ruck to score, allowing Kelly Haimona to convert and tie the scores.
Ulster were then hit by a further blow as Cave then limped off to be replaced by Ludik after only 10 minutes and two minutes later Haimona slotted a penalty to give Zebre the lead.
With things presumably about to change in the next few weeks regarding the coaching structure ready to be put in place at Ulster as interim coach Kiss heads back to Dublin on a permanent basis, this was no bad time to put some meat on the bone regarding Ulster's on-pitch health, but to concede so easily, early on, was hardly part of the script.
Neither was Humphreys missing a straightforward looking penalty shot on the quarter of the hour mark but three minutes later a wonderful chip and collect from Trimble sparked the move which ultimately saw Diack supply Gilroy out on the left for the winger to step inside the cover to touch down.
After consulting with the TMO, Leighton Hodges awarded the score and Humphreys nailed a wonderful conversion from out on the touchline to put Ulster 14-10 up.
This became 19-10 nine minutes later when Andrew supplied Diack with the scoring pass out on the left, though Humphreys missed the extras.
Haimona then missed a penalty given against Williams but Ulster shot up the field again after Trimble burst through but was hauled down just short. Ulster, though, recycled and moved it left and right for Ludik to slide over but the score was disallowed due to a forward pass.
Again, from the ensuing scrum, Ulster stole possession and Luke Marshall almost got over only to lose the ball though the home side were penalised anyway at the set-piece.
The half ended with Ulster pressing for a score and opting for a scrum from a penalty under the posts which led to a turnover and the Italians survived.
Ulster had to be alert shortly after the restart when Ludik wrapped Vunisa into touch at the corner flag. With the game becoming scrappy, Andrew was then yellow-carded after colliding with an airborne Leonard and even though it looked very similar to the Payne incident from last season's Saracens game – when the Kiwi was shown red – Andrew escaped with a yellow card from Mr Hodges.
Still, Ulster had the wherewithal to score when, off a scrum, Paul Marshall broke right and fed Trimble who stormed in at the right corner for Ulster's bonus point score with Humphreys adding a superb conversion to take the score to 26-10
And then just before Andrew returned, came the score of the night when Humphreys superbly gathered a ball on the touchline and launched Trimble through the middle. He linked with Best and with the ball recycled, Humphreys chipped for Tuohy to score.
Humphreys then added yet another excellent conversion to take Ulster's lead to 33-10 and already looking resigned to their fate, Haimona opted to kick a penalty under the posts to make it 33-13 which is how it ended.