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Ulster wilt in Italy's heat with first defeat of Pro12 season to Zebre


Sifting around for positives after this one is simply too much like hard labour – with Declan Fitzpatrick's 10th minute red card foremost in the difficult graft – and yet there is something to be excavated so we'll start with that.

It won't have lightened the mood but, even after their first ever defeat to Zebre, Ulster bizarrely managed to move up to third in the table thanks to their losing bonus and Munster falling to the Ospreys on Saturday night.

And that's it? Pretty much, though you could point to a decent showing from Stuart McCloskey on his first start of the season and some pretty useful work at the breakdown from Callum Black a great try-saving tackle from Rob Herring – though Zebre scored from the next play – plus an immediate impact from late substitutes Rory Best and Andrew Trimble.

Other than that it was all far too ragged and to add to Ulster's woes Paddy Jackson picked up a head injury while short-term second row signing Ronald Raaymakers is not in good shape either and is believed to have picked up a shoulder injury playing for Counties Manukau in the ITM Cup back in his native New Zealand on Saturday morning.

Anyway, after two years of digging themselves out of difficult situations in Parma, this time Ulster simply couldn't overcome a deadly cocktail of a high error count, an apparent inability to make plays stick – which may have be partly explained by the 10 changes to the starting side – and, of course, the early red card shown to Fitzpatrick which looks sure to end in suspension.

And not forgetting Italian TMO Carlo Damasco, who seemed somewhat over-employed by Irish referee Peter Fitzgibbon – the man who also fussily oversaw Ulster's opening game at the Scarlets when another good looking try was ruled out – who was asked to adjudicate after Darren Cave scampered in under the sticks to rescue the game with 10 minutes left and called an apparent obstruction earlier in the move by Tommy Bowe on Gonzalo Garcia.

Harsh? Absolutely.

But, really, the main game-changer had already happened 70 minutes earlier when Fitzpatrick had lashed out at Andrea Manici.

It was desperately unfortunate for the luckless Fitzpatrick – who was just back after serving a concussion protocol from the Scarlets game – that he found himself gone in the 10th minute.

But the Ireland international threw a punch which may have connected with Andrea Manici and, after going upstairs, Fitzgibbon wielded red even though some form of contact with Fitzpatrick's face had taken place just before he struck out at the Zebre hooker and indeed the Ulster player's eye required stitching afterwards.

So, Ulster's third sending off in five months – following on from the cards shown to Jared Payne against Saracens and Tom Court in the home tie with Leinster – did their cause huge damage and forced the visitors to play with 14 men for 70 minutes of what proved to be hard toil in the Parma heat.

It meant that the scrum was unbalanced – on occasions McCloskey or later on Trimble joined as an extra flanker – and was never a force to be reckoned with in the way it had been during Ulster's three game unbeaten run. And with other members of the team clearly not functioning in the way they ought to have been, Ulster were up against it from the moment Fitzpatrick trooped off with only Zebre's own lack of accuracy and confidence ensuring that the visitors survived.

That they stayed in the game was to their credit but also spoke volumes of an Italian side who had been heavily beaten in their opening three games which, of course, included the five try tanking Ulster had served out earlier in the month.

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For Ulster, too many moves ended up being rushed or seeing passes fail to go to hand and a case in point was shortly after Fitzpatrick's departure when Michael Allen had hit some space and linked with the strong-running McCloskey only for the move to die near the Zebre line when Michael Heaney's low looking pass couldn't be held by Craig Gilroy.

That exemplified a first half which ended 0-0 on the scoreboard. Yes, things were that bad as the sun beat down at the Stadio XXV Aprile.

Ulster did, of course, manage to cross the Italians' line with a marvellous inside flip pass from Gilroy finding Cave on the angle, but the moment Mr Fitzgibbon opted to go upstairs you sensed that things weren't going to turn out well for the visitors who will now be getting rather used to staying at home as five of their next six games – including the mouth-watering European tie with Toulon – are in Belfast.

"We didn't really control areas of the game that we should have controlled and unfortunately we came away on the wrong side of the game," is how a clearly disappointed assistant coach Neil Doak called it.

"The set-piece was always going to be a bit of a struggle when you lose a prop.

"We talked about it before, ironically what happens if cards come about and unfortunately for us it did come about and we weren't able to cope.

"We just didn't control areas we should have and that was out downfall," Doak added.

After Leonardo Sarto had essentially butchered two tries, Ulster's defensive shape finally gave way when prop Dario Chistolini got over in the corner and Kelly Haimona's conversion made it a 7-0 margin which was always going to be an arm-wrestle of a game.

That Ulster came back – through two Ian Humphreys penalties – was to their credit but then Haimona kicked a penalty off a retreating Ulster scrum and the coup de grace was delivered moments after Cave's disallowed try when Haimona stepped up and nailed a long range drop goal which, yet again, brought the TMO back into play.

How ironic then that in Ulster's final attack, Cave was held up in a Les Kiss-style choke tackle for the last turnover of a game best forgotten for a plethora of reasons.

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