Ulster survived a late scare away in Italy to Treviso, clinging on for a 24-20 win at the Stadio Monigo on Sunday.
Tries from Tommy Bowe and Ruan Pienaar helped Ulster defeat Treviso and remain in fifth place in the table.
The Irishmen dominated the contest for most of the first half, and seemed to be out of sight at half time. The second half though witnessed a marvellous Treviso fightback, through a well-taken try from Francesco Minto to complement a first half effort from Sam Christie.
While the turnaround owed just as much to Ulster inefficiency as Treviso invention, there is no doubt that the hosts thoroughly deserved their losing bonus point, and Treviso will actually have been disappointed not to have sneaked it at the end.
By the final whistle Ulster had done just about enough to prevail despite not scoring in the second half, but will surely ask questions about how they let such a commanding lead slip away.
The game began untidily, with Ulster dominating possession in the opening exchanges. Treviso struggled to get attain much territory, and put themselves under unnecessary pressure by a couple of dubious decisions to run the ball out of their 22.
The enterprise of the Irish side was evident, with Pienaar keeping the tempo and intensity high. And this early pressure earned an inevitable reward on six minutes when a neat chip and chase in the Treviso 22 allowed Jackson to gather his own kick, and touch down under the posts. The Irish international converted his own try to put Ulster 0-7 ahead, and with all the early momentum.
The hosts responded well, though, building sustained pressure of their own in the Ulster half. The Italians launched a series of attacks in the Ulster 22, and seemed to have negotiated their way over on the 10-minute mark, but Irish wing Craig Gilroy managed to obstruct the try.
Referee Ben Whitehouse adjudged that Gilroy’s intervention had been illegal, however, and the international winger was dispatched to the sin-bin for his indiscretion.
From a Treviso perspective, it was a pity that they didn’t earn more from this rare venture into Ulster territory, as they seemed to be building nicely through the superb Jayden Hayward.
But Ulster retained control through their efficient half-backs, and Jackson added an impressive 19th minute penalty to increase Ulster’s advantage to 0-10. The visitors had an iron grip on possession, but Treviso weren’t helped by the performance of hooker Davide Giazzon, who was having a difficult afternoon with his thro.
The visitors emphasised their superiority on 22 minutes when Gilroy went on a trademark run down the left wing before calmly drawing his man, and putting Pienaar away unopposed to score Ulster’s second try. Jackson converted to make it 0-17, and things were looking pretty healthy from an Ulster point of view.
It got even better when Bowe cut a trademark line from a short Jackson pass to evade the home defence and score.
With ten minutes still to go before half time, Ulster seemed well on course for the bonus point try.
The Belfast side had certainly been very clinical in the first half, but they were aided by the passivity of the Treviso defence. Right on the cusp of half-time though, the hosts grabbed a lifeline with a good try.
Full-back Hayward took a recycled ball from a ruck in the Ulster 22, and with nothing much on, cleverly chipped through to the left hand corner where a grateful Christie had won the race to score his side’s first try. Hayward converted to make it 7-24 at the interval.
As the second half started, Ulster weren’t exactly in cruise control, but it was the Italian hosts that had all the work to do.
The half began with the visitors camped in the Treviso 22, and Ulster were clearly determined to bag the bonus point as soon as possible. But the visitors lacked the clinical touch they had the first half, as they fumbled and mishandled the ball.
In the end, it was the Italians that scored next. Big number eight Dean Budd made several bursts in Ulster’s 22, and the hosts bombarded Ulster’s line. The visitors’ defence kept Treviso at bay initially, but when replacement Minto picked and drove on 56 minutes, there was no stopping him from a couple of yards out.
The hosts reduced the deficit further on 67 minutes when Hayward slotted another penalty to make it 17-24.
The Treviso comeback was now on through sheer perseverance, but there was no doubt that Ulster had been needlessly profligate with ball in hand. And when Hayward nailed another penalty on 72 minutes, it was incredibly a four-point ball game.
The visitors biting their fingernails by this stage, but when they were awarded a 76 minute penalty in the Treviso 22, they still had the belief to go to the corner rather than take the points.
Ulster’s nerves were compounded when they knocked on at the ensuing lineout, though, and the Irishmen proceeded to make a hash of their attempts to close out the game.
The Irishmen gifted possession to Treviso, and were repeatedly forced to scramble. Despite their palpable nerves, Ulster held on for a much needed win, but in reality they should have wrapped it up much earlier.
Tries: Christie, Minto
Cons: Hayward 2
Pens: Hayward 2
Tries: Jackson, Pienaar, Bowe
Cons: Jackson 3
Yellow Card: Gilroy
Treviso: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Andrea Pratichetti, 10 Sam Christie, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Dean Budd, 7 Alessandro Zanni (c), 6 Marco Barbini, 5 Corniel Van Zyl, 4 Tomas Vallejos, 3 Rupert Harden, 2 Davide Giazzon, 1 Matteo Zanusso
Replacements: 16 Albert Anae, 17 Jos