Unconvincing Ulster leave it very late to do a job on brave Treviso
Ulster 23 Treviso 22
On a night when Treviso's team bus was involved in a prang on the way to the ground, Ulster narrowly avoided a crash of their own as they needed a last-gasp try to beat the Italians by just a point at Kingspan Stadium.
Having been second-best for long periods of the game, the hosts were trailing by six before Andrew Trimble burst over late on to send the visitors home with an ill-deserved reverse.
Having got out of jail at a similar late stage against the previously pointless Kings in their last outing, it was not a result that will have eased any fears over the side's recent performances.
Indeed, not since the win over Wasps over a month ago have Ulster fans ended a game feeling better about their side than when it started.
Even with an inexperienced side that featured three young debutants in Aaron Hall, Greg Jones and Matt Dalton, as well as a belated first outing for Schalk van der Merwe, few came in expecting such a narrow success but there were a host of signs early on that this was not going to be a night with much to shout about.
The number of combined absentees could have comfortably filled two teams, so it should perhaps have come as no surprise that when the game did eventually kick off after a brief delay, there was little continuity on display.
With discipline sure to have been a key focus for Les Kiss during the week, the Australian will likely have been irate at a raft of early penalties.
Two blasts of Mike Adamson's whistle in the first three minutes gave Treviso's Tommaso Allan the first chance to knock over a penalty, the Scottish-born Italian making no mistakes off the tee.
With Treviso quick off the line in defence, the physical Nasi Manu taking one opportunity to welcome young Hall to the senior ranks with a huge hit.
Clive Ross, Ulster's most experienced back-rower on display, was next to transgress when he was caught not rolling away in the tackle.
Again Allan was able to punish the mistake.
With a quarter of an hour gone, the hosts certainly appeared more steady on their feet and a line-out won on the edge of the '22' provided a good chance to attack.
Ross was able to grab the dart from John Andrew and the hooker came into the maul that was edging dangerously forward.
When Cooney broke off the back, a deceptive shimmy from Tommy Bowe sent Andrea Bronzini the wrong way and, when the Monaghan man was able to pluck his scrum-half's pass out of the air one-handed, he was over and away for yet another PRO14 try.
Having been central to the score, Cooney's conversion gave his side a first lead that he would extend just four minutes later when Robert Barbieri played the ball on the ground.
Treviso fell foul of the referee once again on the half hour, Bronzini leading a shoulder into Louis Ludik when the Ulster centre did not have the ball.
The wing would see yellow to continue his inauspicious outing but, from the moment Cooney knocked over the subsequent penalty, Treviso would not be troubled again until they returned to a full complement.
Indeed, just as Leinster managed when they were last visitors to Kingspan Stadium, the down-in-numbers Italians looked the more likely to score, earning two penalties for their efforts, one missed, one scored.
With Ross departing thanks to an injury, Jones entered the game as a sub, the second debutant of the game leaving Ulster with a back-row whose most experienced member had made five previous appearances.
Any hopes that Ulster would emerge from the sheds re-energised in the second-half were soon put to bed, the visitors, who boasted just one previous win on this ground, were certainly the better side.
In the early stages of the second-half, the errors continued to mount, a Pete Nelson kick fired out on the full one of his last acts before he was replaced by Darren Cave leading to Christian Leali'ifano moving from inside centre to number 10.
Still Treviso edged ever closer with Allan's fourth penalty of the night leaving the score 13-12.
With Paul Marshall on for his 200th cap, the scrum-half knew that all four previous players to hit the milestone had lost on the occasion.
And it looked like he was due a similar fate when his box-kick was batted around before Van der Merwe scooped the ball up only to pass to Treviso number 8 Robert Barbieri, who gleefully accepted the gift to push his side into the lead.
Allan's form with the boot continued with a fine sideline conversion.
A penalty sent to the corner on the hour mark gave Ulster a way in, but there was little change out of the Treviso maul defence with the shrill blast of Adamson's whistle signalling a turnover when Ulster could ill afford to come away with no points.
When next presented with such an opportunity, Ulster took the points, Leali'ifano knocking the ball over from in front of the posts but there was still so much to do to avoid losing to both Italian teams in the same season for a first time.
To avoid such an indignity, Ulster would need a converted score after Kiwi Marty Banks stroked over his side's fifth penalty of the game. As much as it didn't seem to be forthcoming, it was exactly what they got.
On a night when so many won their first cap, it was a player - Trimble - with a record 224 who saved their bacon, bursting over from a scrum. Whether it was deserved was another matter.
Ulster: C Piutau, T Bowe, L Ludik, C Leali'ifano (C), C Gilroy, P Nelson, J Cooney; C Black, J Andrew, R Kane, K Treadwell, A O'Connor; C Ross, A Hall, N Timoney.
Replacements: R Herring (for Andrew, 51), S van der Merwe (for Black, 44), A Warwick (for Kane, 51), M Dalton (for Hall, 69), G Jones (for Ross,33), P Marshall (for Cooney, 52), D Cave (for Nelson, 52), A Trimble (for Bowe, 73)
Benetton: L Sperandio, T Benvenuti, I Brex, A Sgarbi (C), A Bronzini; T Allan, G Bronzini; C Traore, T Baravalle, G Di Stefano, A Zanni, I Herbst, W Douglas, N Mani, R Barbieri
Replacements:H Faiva (for Baravalle, 55), N Quaglio (for Traore, 64), A De Marchi, F Ruzza (for Herbst, 55), M Barbini (for Barbini, 66) , L Crosato, M Banks (for Sperandio, 55), L Morisi (for Allan, 65))
Ref: Mike Adamson (SCO) MOTM: T Allen