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Ulster fall back down to earth after their Euro high

Ulster 17 Benetton 17

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Gripping stuff: Ulster’s James Hume is held up

Gripping stuff: Ulster’s James Hume is held up

Hume grabs Ian McKinley

Hume grabs Ian McKinley

Louis Ludik scores a try

Louis Ludik scores a try

Gripping stuff: Ulster’s James Hume is held up

The first and last things Ulster did last night was scoring a try - but the 79 minutes in between proved their undoing.

The 17-17 draw with Benetton, rescued only by an 80th-minute penalty try awarded by Nigel Owens, kept the Italian side two points ahead of the northern province in PRO14's Conference B, maintaining Ulster's place as the fifth of five teams fighting for only three Champions Cup spots.

After the high of securing a first European quarter-final in five years only a week ago, the bread and butter of domestic fare brought a performance that had head coach Dan McFarland scratching his head.

Despite winning the try count 3-2, his side lacked much thrust in attack while Benetton won the physical battle and were unfortunate not to bring four points back to northern Italy.

After 50 seconds, it had all seemed to be going so well for the hosts as Ulster got the game's opening try.

Virtually straight from kick-off, the hosts were able to quickly recycle possession, eventually working the ball into the hands of Louis Ludik thanks to a good pass from Stuart McCloskey. The rapid-fire score, though, was no pre-cursor of what was to come in the remainder of the game.

Ulster failed to fell Kiwi winger Monty Ioane for a matter of seconds metres out from their line, the time wasted in bringing the ball carrier to ground offering plenty of time for lock Federico Ruzza to size up the mis-match in Ulster's defensive line.

Full-back Michael Lowry was never going to halt the towering second-row's momentum so close to his own line. The conversion, by former Leinsterman Ian McKinley, left Ulster trailing by two.

When Alan O'Connor was pinged with about a minute to go before the half, and McKinley's penalty came in off the upright, the first minute seemed quite some time ago.

Still, with last weekend's comeback against Leicester fresh in the mind, McFarland will have hoped for a similar reaction to his half-time team-talk.

This time around, he got the desired response even quicker. With the wind now behind them, Ulster immediately appeared a better attacking unit and were given a foothold by two penalties given against Benetton in quick succession.

Lowry despatched both to the touchline, the second setting up his side for their first real rumble out of touch.

No doubt much to their technical coach's delight, it was a flawless set-piece, the ball claimed by O'Connor and shovelled to Rob Herring at the back to drive over the line.

Whereas McKinley's penalty bounced off the post and through the uprights, the scores remained level when Lowry's conversion hit the same pole but bounced away.

And whereas in Welford Road Ulster's second-half resurgence saw them maintain the upper hand, this time the game remained a back and forth.

Benetton enjoyed the next spell of possession and, launching an attack off a scrum, were able to get over for the next score.

Again Ulster simply didn't have the heft to stop the visitor's more sizeable backline, this time the impressive Ratuva Tavuyara breaking through the tackle of replacement nine Jonny Stewart before stretching for the white line.

McKinley, enjoying his return to Irish soil, nailed the conversion from the touchline to nudge his side seven points to the good.

Frustratingly for the home crowd, there were a whole host of chances that went begging thereafter.

Having had success from their earlier maul, it was no surprise to see Ulster point for touch when Treviso transgressed but twice from good opportunities they failed to make hay.

In the first instance, the ball wasn't clean and while the second was better, it made precious little headway before the ball was lost on the deck.

Individual magic would yield little reward either, Rob Lyttle's quick feet and show of pace only just failing to produce a score when he was hauled down, followed soon after by Lowry, and Darren Cave knocked on.

At that point plenty of fans seemed to have given up the game as a lost cause and began to head for the exits.

Kingspan has seen plenty of late drama already this season though and there was more in store last night. Having beaten their other Conference B rivals Edinburgh and Scarlets in minute 80, this time the late rally was only good for a draw.

Benetton must have thought the victory was secure as the seconds drained away but a dramatic blast of Owens' whistle had departing fans pausing in the stairwell.

With the clock having hit 80, it was well and truly the last chance with the hosts hoping against hope that this time their maul would fire.

Matt Dalton claimed his fellow replacement John Andrew's dart and the drive started in earnest. It certainly looked to be working its way towards the whitewash when referee Owens raised his arm and ran under the posts.

It was an ideal outcome for Ulster, saving them a testing conversion on a night when two had already gone astray.

Owens' decision was worth only a point in terms of the table, though denying Benetton an extra two could well prove more important in the long run.

Again though, the differing levels of performance when at full strength and when their depth is stretched will be of concern.

The next time McFarland has a full deck to choose from will be the Euro quarter-final in the Aviva. By that stage, when there will be only three league ties remaining, they'll have to hope the squad's less heralded players have been able to keep them in contention.

ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune (rep: Lyttle, 54), J Hume, S McCloskey (rep: Cave, 40), L Ludik; B Burns, D Shanahan (rep: Stewart, 54); A Warwick, R Herring (rep: Andrew, 73), M Moore (rep: O'Toole, 55); A O'Connor (c), K Treadwell (rep: Ross, 59); I Nagle, N Timoney, G Jones (rep: Dalton, 73)

Benetton: L Sperandio; I Ratuva, T Iannone (rep: Brex, 63), M Zanon, M Ioane; I McKinley (c), D Duvenage (rep: Gori, 75); N Quaglio (rep: Traore, 49), E Favia (rep: Baravalle, 54), M Riccioni (rep: Ferrari 54); I Herbst (rep: Fuser, 56), F Ruzza; M Lazzaroni (rep: Barbini, 49), M Lamaro, T Halafihi (rep: Pettinelli, 67)

Referee: N Owens

Man of the match: R Tavuyara

Belfast Telegraph