Zebre picked up their first win of the season, 13-6 over Ulster as the Irish side paid the price for Declan Fitzpatrick’s early red card.
The controversial sending off of Irish prop Fitzpatrick after just ten minutes set the tone for a lively, but error-strewn game in sunny Parma.
Kelly Haimona was undoubtedly the hero for a plucky Zebre side, contributing a penalty, conversion, and drop goal, while prop Dario Chistolini also got on the scoreboard for the hosts.
All Ulster mustered in response was two Ian Humphreys penalties, and the Irish province failed to recover from Fitzpatrick’ red card.
In the final reckoning, Ulster may have some issues with the officials, but Zebre won’t care an iota as they secured a rare win over the Ravenhill men.
The first ten minutes of the game were scrappy, with both sides kicking away a large amount of possession.
If anything, it was Zebre who were having the better of it in the opening few minutes, with their forwards making significant gains.
But the game was turned on its head on ten minutes when Fitzpatrick was sent off for throwing a punch.
Although it was hard to see the incident, there seemed to be some provocation. You can understand the logic of the officials in banishing Fitzpatrick to the sidelines, but the offence was arguably more worthy of a yellow.
But the TMO Carlo Damasco saw it differently, and left Ulster at a massive disadvantage for the remaining 70 minutes of the game.
It was now backs to the wall for the Irish side, but to their credit they kept playing in difficult circumstances.
The match was pretty dull as a spectacle for most of the first period it must be acknowledged, and there wasn’t exactly a proliferation of clear-cut chances.
Paddy Jackson had a chance to break the deadlock on 28 minutes, but his effort drifted wide of the posts.
Zebre kept 14-man Ulster pinned back in their own half through the boot of fly-half Edoardo Padovani, but created very little of substance themselves.
In fact, it was the Irish visitors that looked the more likely to end the stalemate for the majority of the half.
Haimona had a chance to put the hosts into the lead on 35 minutes, but frustratingly scuffed his kick. The miss was symptomatic of a flat and turgid contest.
Ulster’s defence was the epitome of organisation, but there was a clear dearth of structured and meaningful attacks from both sides.
Individual errors and lapses of concentration were the order of the day in terms of the first period.
Indeed when Peter Fitzgibbon blew the whistle to bring the half to a conclusion, the overriding feeling was of relief.
Leonardo Sarto seemed to have got over the whitewash for the hosts on 42 minutes when he finished off a nippy Zebre attack, but was whistled back for a foot in touch.
The Italian winger appeared to have made amends a minute later when he found himself at the bottom of a home maul on the Ulster line, but the TMO considered him to have been held up; and Sarto must have thought himself the unluckiest man in Italy.
But the Italian hosts weren’t despondent for long as tight head Chistolini got over in the corner on 46 minutes, when he burst through a despairing tackle by Jackson.
It was to be the fly-half’s final act of the match. Haimona converted to earn the hosts a deserved 7-0 lead.
Replacement Humphreys clawed back the lead a little on 50 minutes, though, when he slotted a penalty for the Irishmen.
And the fly-half successfully narrowed the gap to a mere point on 54 minutes to make it 7-6 to Zebre.
The visitors were clinging on quite well, but there was a pronounced increase in intensity from the hosts at this stage of the encounter.
The well-drilled defence of the visitors succeeded in keeping the Zebre attack at bay. Haimona seemed to have wrapped the game up for the hosts on 68 minutes when he drilled another penalty following an almighty shove from the Zebre pack.
But the visitors weren’t finished, and raced up the field, establishing themselves in Zebre’s 22.
From there, the ball went through several pairs of hands, before Darren Cave touched down for Ulster.
Frustratingly for them, TMO adjudged that Tommy Bowe had obstructed, and ruled out the score.
The intervention seemed decisive, and when Haimona nailed a drop goal on 72 minutes, the hosts sealed a hard fought, if deserved, victory; leaving their supporters in raptures.
Drop Goal: Haimona
Yellow Card: Fabiani
Penalties: Humphreys 2
Red Card: Fitzpatrick
Zebre: 15 Hendrik Daniller, 14 Giulio Toniolatti, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Kelly Haimona, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Edoardo Padovani, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Samuela Vunisa, 7 Filippo Cristiano, 6 Mauro Bergamasco, 5 George Biagi, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys (capt), 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Andrea Manici, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Andrea Lovotti, 18 Luciano Leibson, 19 Andries Ferreira, 20 Valerio Bernab