BENETTON 10 ULSTER 15
Ulster moved into second place in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14 with a nervy 15-10 win over Benetton in Treviso on Saturday.
It was a scrappy performance from the Irish Province in a game the Italians dominated for large periods.
However, a solid defensive display in the second half ensured Ulster did not surrender their lead after they had come back from 7-3 down to lead 15-7 at one stage.
The performance may not have been what they were looking for, but to finish this block of fixtures with a win and second in the conference standings going into the international break will give the Province something to focus on when they go to Scarlets on November 23.
The Italians had made a confident start. A penalty to the corner saw the lineout secured and Ulster melted in defence as the driving maul came on, hooker Hame Faiva crossed and outhalf Tommaso Allan converted for a 7-0 lead after three minutes.
Ulster responded well, some good play from Stuart McCloskey had them in a good place, but they were then somewhat harshly penalised for holding under the Benetton posts when it looked as if the Italian defender had gone off his feet at the ruck.
From there the Italians dominated the front quarter. They were playing with confidence, high temp, offloading ball and Ulster were scrambling all over the place.
Another penalty to the corner provided a potential opportunity for a second driving maul, but the Ulster defence were organised this time and a knockon relieved the pressured.
But it took a timely tackle from Henry Speight to deny the Italians another try as the first quarter ended.
Having weathered the storm, Ulster finally opened their account, albeit a longrange penalty from 42m by outhalf Billy Burns on the half hour mark.
But they had to put on a huge defensive display in the last 10 minutes to ensure they only went into the break trailing 7-3, debutant centre James Hume playing his part in helping Brex spill the ball forward when over the try line.
Having probably had the hairdryer treatment from head coach Dan McFarland Ulster came out well for the second half and having gone through more than five phases Stuart McCloskey made a good drive and Sean Reidy took it on to go over for the score. Burns missed the conversion but Ulster were now 8-7 ahead four minutes into the second half.
Ulster then had a solid attacking lineout, driving maul and although held up short initially, and a drive from Marcel Ceotzee stopped, Burns popped a pass to McCloskey and he forced his way over - but on review it was ruled out.
That brought play back to where it all started with a penalty, Burns popped to touch and at the second attempt - Benetton's Lamaro sin-binned during the first - and hooker Rob Herring crashed off the driving maul to score. Burns converted and it was now 15-7 after 55 minutes.
It was Treviso who dug in and played the better rugby during that sin-bin period, Ulster again unable to produce anything clinical when in good attacking position.
Ulster changed the entire front row and introduced Greg Jones into the backrow for Reidy as they looked to change something.
It was still Benetton who dominated in possession and territory, but some crucial turnovers by Ulster took the sting out of the Italians as they looked for something more than Allan's 63rd minute penalty which left them five points behind.
And it was a nervous finish for Ulster with Benetton pressing their line testing the defence to the limit.
Ulster did their best to throw it away, a sloppy lineout on their own throw giving Benetton one last chance as the clock hit the red - thankfully for the visitors the Italians knocked on several phases later and it was game over.
Benetton: Hayward; Tavuyara, Brex, Sgarbi, Benvenuti; Allan, Duvenage; Appiah, Faiva, Ferrari, Herbst, Zanni, Budd, Lamaro, Barbini.
Replacements: Baravalle (Appiah 48), De March (Faiva 48)i, Riccioni, Cannone, Pettinelli, Gori, Rizzi (Hayward 32), Esposito (Tavuyara 59).
Ulster: Nelson; Baloucoune, Hume, McCloskey, Speight; Burns, Shanahan; O'Sullivan, Herring, Moore; O'Connor (capt), Treadwell; Coetzee, Reidy, Timoney.
Replacements: Andrew (Herring 63), Warwick (O'Sullivan 63), O'Toole (Moore 63), Ross (Coetzee 74), Jones (Reidy 63), Stewart, McPhillips, Kernohan (Baloucoune 32).