Ulster moved into second place in the RaboDirect PRO12 standings with this deserved win in spite of a poor performance over Zebre at a windswept Ravenhill last night.
Jared Payne’s flash of brilliance near the end of the first half for the only try of the match proved the major difference in a game dominated more by the gale force conditions than flowing play.
It did complete a month long Italian job for Ulster, this being their fourth straight win over Italian opposition which started with an equally scrappy win in Parma against last night’s opponents on November 30.
Ulster had dug in for the first quarter as Zebre pushed them hard, but they dominated for the remainder of the game and will have been glad to come away with a hard earned victory while Zebre probably deserved a losing bonus point for their efforts on a miserable night in front of nearly 14,000 brave Ravenhill souls
With the gale behind the Italians it was no surprise they dominated the opening quarter with the home side happy to soak the pressure up.
Zebre outhalf, Luciano Orquera opened the scoring on three minutes with a long range penalty and although they continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession they lacked creativity.
Orguera had another penalty opportunity on eight minutes, but was just wide on this occasion before he was blood substituted and on 15 minutes Zebre did double their lead with a second penalty, Tommaso Iannone on target.
The home pack began to exert some pressure – although at scrum time neither hooker seemed keen to strike for the ball – and they began to edge things in the physicality department.
From a lineout – with hooker Niall Annett finding his darts well in spite of the conditions – Ulster went on a rare sortie, led by Paddy Wallace making his return to the senior side after a nine month lay-off with injury, also saw Robbie Diack take it on.
The pack recycled and drove closer to the line.
The ball was spun right and Wallace almost got inside his man. The ball went loose in the tackle and that chance was gone.
Another attack was thwarted on the line when captain Johann Muller was deemed to have been over excitable with the feet at a maul.
But the pressure was beginning to tell and from another lineout, outhalf James McKinney put centre Jared Payne through and after slipping one tackle raced through to score near the posts, leaving Ruan Pienaar with a simple conversion.
That put the home side 7-6 ahead at the break, probably a fair reflection given their strong line of attacks in the second quarter.
The wind had eased slightly in the second half but Ulster completely dominated the third quarter and should have put more points on the board than the three from a Pienaar penalty on 48 minutes.
Lock Lewis Stevenson was beginning to make his presence felt, spoiling their lineout and winning ball on the deck.
A lovely kick to touch from Pienaar just before the hour mark had Ulster pressing again, Stevenson turning ball over but in spite of going through several phases they were unable to get over the line.
Zebre winger, Leonardo Sarto, who had caused the Irish Province a problem or two in the first half, went on a mazy run and, aided by poor tackles from McKinney and Payne, made far too much ground.
The visitors now had a wee step in their stride and the referee on their side.
In a repeat of the return fixture at the end of November, they gave the home side plenty to deal with.
Ulster weathered the little flourish and were soon attacking the visiting ‘22’ again, a penalty for offside presenting Pienaar with an opportunity he was not going to miss on 72 minutes and make it 13-6 and seal the win for the home side but they will know they will have to up their game in the coming weeks.