Ulster number eight Robbie Diack ran in two tries in a comfortable 26-3 victory over Zebre in the RaboDirect Pro12 on Friday.
The league leaders needed to regain the winning habit following their reverse of last week. It was imperative; therefore, that Ulster re-established their pre-eminence in this top versus bottom encounter.
Ulster started the game in determined fashion, displaying much improved levels of continuity from last week. The home side went through a multitude of phases early on, and exerted considerable pressure on the Italian visitors.
This dynamic approach earned its reward on 7 minutes, when young wing Chris Cochrane was denied a try in the corner when the TMO adjudged that he had a foot in touch. But Ulster refused to allow the opportunity to be wasted.
From the ensuing lineout, Zebre recklessly overthrew their arrow and hooker Rob Herring bustled over for the opening try of the evening. Pienaar added the conversion to make it 7-0 to the Irish side.
Ulster were quantifiably better from their lacklustre efforts of seven days ago, displaying a fluidity and incisiveness that had been conspicuously lacking against the Ospreys. As such, Ulster were unrecognisable from last week's performance.
Despite the increased effectiveness of Ulster's efforts, they were unable to breach Zebre's rearguard for the majority of the first half. In terms of organisation and physicality, Zebre were superb and exhibited excellent line speed that unsettled the host's patterns.
Ulster were displaying impressive flair and creativity, but Zebre proved to be very durable opposition indeed. The impressive Daniel Helangahu reduced the deficit for his team on 33 minutes, as Zebre went through a litany of phases.
By this stage, Zebre were very much back in the game and their aggressive approach was disrupting Ulster's rhythm. But it was the hosts who ended the half more strongly. Following an impressive accumulation of phases, Robbie Diack bulldozed over for the second try of the match. Pienaar was uncharacteristically inaccurate with his conversion, however.
The second half heralded increased levels of intensity from the home side, who sought to turn their advantage into a five-point margin. Losing Helangahu to injury, moreover, did not assist Zebre's ambitions.
His replacement seemed to disrupt the impetus of the visitors, whose midfield organisation appeared to be impaired as a consequence. Suddenly, Darren Cave and Andrew Trimble were able to exploit holes in Zebre's resistance.
The defence of the Italians continued to be thoroughly redoubtable, however. Ulster were beginning to grind down their opponents, with the hugely influential John Afoa making a considerable impact in both the tight and loose exchanges.
Ulster were now playing with a dynamism that has been missing during their recent outings. Iain Henderson was particularly effective in the back row, testing the fringe defence of the Italian franchise. Indeed the young blindside nearly added to his team's tally, but the TMO adjudicated that he had been held up at the post.
Ulster did manage to break down Zebre's stoic resistance on 56 minutes, when Diack competed his brace of tries by touching down under the posts. For all their lack of penetration, the hosts were now within a whisker of that crucial bonus point. Ulster laid siege to the Zebre line, but a series of handing errors in Zebre's 22 denied them the opportunity to seal the victory.
Zebre's defensive organisation was truly magnificent. A plethora of chances went begging, before Ricky Andrew put the expectant home crowd out of its palpable misery. The rookie full-back secured the elusive bonus point on 73 minutes, after clinging onto a neat pass from replacement Michael Heaney.
Given the emphatic nature of Glasgow's victory in Rodney Parade, that try could prove very significant indeed. Pienaar added the conversion, but it was the fifth try that enraptured the home crowd. An unglamorous victory it may have been, but this result has restored Ulster to winning ways and earned them some breathing space at the top of the table.
Tries: Herring, Diack 2, Andrew
Cons: Pienaar 3
Ulster: 15 Ricky Andrew, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Chris Cochrane, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Robbie Diack, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Lewis Stevenson, 4 Johann Muller (capt), 3 Declan Fitzpatrick, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Calum Black, 18 John Afoa, 19 Neil McComb, 20 Mike McComish, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 Stuart Olding, 23 Neil Walsh.
Zebre: 15 Paolo Buso, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Alberto Benettin, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Daniel Halangahu, 9 Alberto Chillon, 8 Josh Sole, 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Filippo Cristiano, 5 Marco Bortolami (capt), 4 Michael van Vuren, 3 Luca Redolfini, 2 Andrea Manici, 1 Andrea de Marchi.
Replacements: 16 Carlo Festuccia, 17 Carlo Fazzari, 18 Matias Aguero, 19 Dries van Schalkwyk, 20 Nicola Belardo, 21 Alberto Chiesa, 22 Matteo Pratichetti, 23 David Odiete.
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Paul Haycock (Ireland), Barry O'Keeffe (Ireland)
TMO: Peter Ferguson (Ireland)
by Rory McGimpsey