Second-half tries from Marcell Coetzee and Adam McBurney brought Ulster a hard-fought 35-24 bonus-point win over Benetton in the PRO14 on Friday.
James Hume, Stewart Moore and Michael Lowry also scored in a victory in front of 600 supporters at Kingspan Stadium.
Benetton battled back from 14-0 down to level at 21-21 at half-time with tries from Federico Ruzza, Paolo Garbisi and Braam Steyn, the latter two while Ulster were down to 14 men with wing Jacob Stockdale in the sin-bin. Young fly-half Garbisi scored 14 of their points in total.
Ulster got off the mark after eight minutes when John Cooney’s grubber was pounced on by Hume near the posts.
Cooney converted and Ulster were 7-0 up, which became 14-0 just four minutes later when the home side broke out from their own 22, with Stockdale and Cooney combining to send Moore over on his debut.
The young centre planted the ball under the sticks, allowing Cooney the easiest of conversions.
The Italians then came close to a try of their own – they had already had two significant incursions into Ulster’s 22 – only for Stockdale to prevent Garbisi from getting his pass away.
The visitors deservedly got the next score when after a huge period of pressure, lock Ruzza burrowed over and Garbisi converted to cut Ulster’s lead to 14-7 three minutes before the half-hour.
Ulster were stung into action and after some good work from their forwards close to the Benetton line, Cooney put Lowry through a gap to bag the Irish side’s third touchdown. Cooney added a superb touchline conversion to make it 21-7.
But, again, Benetton came back. Stockdale was yellow-carded for a high hit on a rampaging Toa Halafihi and after the Italians put the ball in the corner, a bulldozing run from Ratuva Tavuyara helped pave the way for Garbisi to run in a score under the posts and convert it.
Then on the stroke of half-time, Tavuyara ran a Cooney kick back and his line-bust helped set up Steyn for Benetton’s third try from close in.
Garbisi’s conversion levelled the scores and the half ended at 21-21, which meant Ulster had coughed up 14 points during Stockdale’s absence.
Three minutes after the restart Garbisi landed a penalty to put the Italians in the lead for the first time.
It lasted only three minutes, though, as Coetzee got over from close in for Ulster’s bonus-point try which Cooney again converted.
There was no further score until seven minutes from time, when McBurney barrelled over from a lineout maul and fellow replacement Bill Johnston converted.
The defending champions start as they left off – winning 👊@dragonsrugby were the latest to fall to the @leinsterrugby machine at the RDS, how impressive were Leo Cullen's men tonight?#GuinnessPRO14 #LEIvDRA pic.twitter.com/jsyRF3qhW1
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) October 2, 2020
Elsewhere, Leinster began their PRO14 title defence with a 35-5 bonus-point win over Dragons at the RDS.
The three-in-a-row champions, who fell short against Saracens in Europe a fortnight ago, coasted to victory despite losing captain Jonathan Sexton to a suspected hamstring injury in the first half.
Three weeks out from Ireland’s rescheduled Six Nations clash with Italy, Sexton was a precautionary withdrawal as Leinster reeled off tries from Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour and James Lowe to lead 21-0 at the break.
Ireland hopeful Lowe and Ashton Hewitt swapped third-quarter tries before Leinster replacement Ryan Baird wrapped up the scoring in fine style in the 66th minute.
Cardiff Blues start with a win
Earlier, Cardiff Blues got off to a winning start in the PRO14 with a 16-6 victory over Zebre despite playing most of the second half with 14 men.
With the Welsh side leading through Josh Adams’ first-half try, team-mate Josh Turnbull was sent off in the 43rd minute by Irish referee George Clancy.
The number eight was dismissed for a shoulder to the head of Zebre flanker Maxime Mbanda, with the lead cut to 10-6 once the resulting penalty was put through the posts.
However Cardiff managed to grow into the game and took control with kicks from Jarrod Evans and Jason Tovey, with the former finishing with eight points as well as creating Adams’ try with a well-judged kick through just before the half-hour.
Evans’ penalty and Adams’ try had John Mulvihill’s side 10-3 up at the interval and though Turnbull’s dismissal was a setback, they responded positively.
Carlo Canna kicked the home side’s six points in front of around 1,000 fans at the Stadio Lanfranchi in Parma.