Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

McFarland insists rain a factor in laboured Ulster win against Zebre


Ulster’s Rob Herring scores a try. Credit: INPHO/Oisin Keniry
Ulster’s Rob Herring scores a try. Credit: INPHO/Oisin Keniry

By Michael Sadlier

Two straight home games and the same number of wins though nothing much to suggest that Ulster are firing on all cylinders as bonus points have now eluded them on both occasions.

Despite Zebre's battling 3-0 reverse at home to Leinster in the previous round, this one still looked a no-brainer when it came to Ulster taking five points from the encounter. But it didn't turn out like that.

This was four very hard-earned points. Mitigation has to be found in the truly miserable playing conditions, but Ulster can hardly hide away from the inescapable fact that they, at times, struggled as much with themselves as the weather.

Such a display, rain-hit or not, simply won't do on Saturday when they return to Thomond Park, scene of last season's record 64-7 annihilation.

Indeed, Dan McFarland indicated that this interprovincial clash may see the return of World Cup squad members Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale and Jordi Murphy.

Zebre did also put in a big shift over stifling Ulster's attacking hopes, which was no mean feat as they had to play 20 minutes of the second half without a full complement on the field, thanks to shipping two yellow cards at different times in the second 40.

Almost inevitably, Ulster picked up injuries, which did little to assist their cause.

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The luckless Will Addison left early with an arm/shoulder issue, while Louis Ludik also departed later on looking distinctly uncomfortable.

In the end, it fell to the pack to help put the home side 17-7 in front after 52 sodden minutes and, from there, McFarland's men squeezed the life out of the Italians, which allowed Rob Lyttle to put the contest beyond reasonable doubt and bring Ulster their fourth win in five games.

"The conditions were appalling," McFarland said.

"It was really wet, so it was very difficult to attack with any fluency, so you can't get it through the hands quickly.

"However, some of the decision making we made in the first half (it ended with Ulster leading by just 10-7) led to some of our turnovers, so we got no fluency there.

"But in the second half, I thought we were much better.

"We held on to the ball and created a lot more pressure. We used our maul and scrum more efficiently and got tries in the second half."

The bonus point didn't come, though McFarland reckoned that skipper Rob Herring's 47th minute try being chalked off for a block by Kieran Treadwell was the wrong call by the match officials and, as such, denied Ulster maximum points.

"To me, it's not blocking, Kieran (Treadwell) tries to get out of the way as Rob runs through.

"I was really disappointed with that," said McFarland.

"Having said that, there were a couple of occasions when we were two inches from their line and we should have got a score a little bit earlier.

"We had an opportunity at the end and we mauled it into touch, which is not great, but we controlled the game well in the second half.

"We did put ourselves into a position where we could have got a bonus point and nearly did, but just didn't so, yeah, disappointing," added the Ulster had coach.

Ulster had fallen 7-0 behind early on after Carlo Canna converted Mattia Bellini's try, but levelled things on 20 minutes when man-of-the match Luke Marshall's break and draw of the Zebre cover gifted Dave Shanahan a try, which Bill Johnston converted.

Johnston then added a penalty to put Ulster 10-7 in front when the sides changed ends.

It took until the 52nd minute before referee Sam Grove-White awarded Ulster their next score, a penalty try - former Kingspan player Ian Nagle being yellow carded for sacking the driving maul - and then Johnston's cross-kick gave Lyttle his unconverted score with 10 minutes remaining, Zebre being down to 14 for the second time.

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