Ulster were made to work hard for their 13-6 victory over a spirited Zebre side in a dismal RaboDirect PRO12 meeting at Ravenhill.
Ulster were made to work very hard for their 13-6 victory over a spirited Zebre side in a dismal RaboDirect PRO12 clash at Ravenhill on Friday.
A try from Jared Payne and the trusty boot of Ruan Pienaar saw an untidy Ulster secure the points.
The Italian franchise competed valiantly for the majority of the game, and was somewhat unlucky not to push the hosts closer.
The visitors landed two penalties of their own through Luciano Orquera and Tommaso Iannone, but in the end a losing bonus-point was all they had to show for their efforts.
The game, played in windy and inclement conditions, got off to a scrappy start. It was Zebre who opened the scoring on four minutes when number ten Orquera slotted a well-taken penalty.
And it was the Italian minnows that made the superior start; running hard and direct at the home defence.
The visitors earned further reward for their graft on fifteen minutes when Iannone added to the tally to make it 0-6.
Zebre's early superiority was copper-fastened by a sterling scrummaging effort, with their forwards achieving some ascendancy at the set piece.
Ulster responded with urgency and purpose, but avoidable handling errors disrupted their tempo. It was a disjointed and flat performance from last year's beaten finalists in this section of the game, it has to be said. The Irish side showed little of the intensity and quality that has been the hallmark of recent efforts.
But Jared Payne settled the home nerves on 30 minutes when he danced through a disorganised Zebre defence to score. Pienaar converted to make it 7-6 to the Ravenhill outfit. By half=time, the home side were coming back into the game, but it was still a fairly uninspired effort nonetheless.
The second-half started with a noticeable increase in tempo and physicality from the hosts, but yet again errors tarnished their performance.
As throughout the first=half, the efficiency of the visitors' defensive effort was very evident.
Pienaar augmented his side's lead on 48 minutes when he chipped over a kick straight in front of the posts. The Irish province were now 10-6 in credit.
The home side were certainly having the lion's share of possession, but the Zebre defence was equal to the challenge.
But once again lapses in handling and concentration undermined the home effort. Indeed Ulster were unfortunate not to be punished for their profligacy when Zebre winger Leonardo Sarto nearly waded through a lacklustre Ulster defence.
Zebre were certainly still very dangerous in this phase of the encounter, but their performance was not aided by the withdrawal of their talisman and skipper Marco Bortolami.
The home side made a raft of substitutions in an effort to ignite their attacking game, but the telling breakthrough never really materialised to be honest. But Pienaar put some daylight between his side and their Italian visitors on 72 minutes to make it 13-6 to the Irish province.
Zebre struggled desperately to regain a foothold in the match, but the home side just about clung on to secure a necessary, but ugly win.
The Irishmen will certainly improve for the bigger challenges of next year. For a spirited Zebre side, this performance was much improved, and there can be no disputing that they thoroughly deserved their losing bonus-point.
For a depleted Ulster, however, the victory was all that mattered.
Pen: Pienaar 2
Pen: Orquera, Iannone
Ulster: 15 Ricky Andrew, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Michael Allen, 10 James McKinney, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Robbie Diack, 7 Sean Doyle, 6 Mike McComish, 5 Lewis Stevenson, 4 Johann Muller (c), 3 Ricky Lutton, 2 Niall Annett, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Tom Court, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Neil McComb, 20 Conor Joyce, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 Peter Nelson, 23 David McIlwaine.
Zebre: 15 Dion Berryman, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Tommaso Iannone, 12 Roberto Quartaroli, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Gugliemo Palazzani, 8 Nicola Cattina, 7 Filippo Ferrarini, 6 Filippo Cristiano, 5 Marco Bortolami (c), 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Andrea de Marchi, 2 Andrea Manici, 1 Dario Chistolini.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Matias Aaguero, 18 Luca Redofini, 19 Michael van Vuren, 20 Emiliano Caffini, 21 Alberto Chillon, 22 Kameli Ratuvou, 23 Brendon Leonard.
Referee: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
Assistant referees: Sean Gallagher (Ireland), Dermot Blake (Ireland)
Television match official: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Assessor: Jack Young (Ireland)
By Rory McGimpsey