Despite tries from Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave, Ulster fell to their first defeat of the 2017-18 Guinness PRO14 season with Zebre running out 27-23 winners at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
A bright start from Zebre allowed the home side to take the early momentum and sent an early warning to Ulster. Carlo Canna converted a penalty and then had the chance to double Zebre’s lead after a break from Mattia Bellini who dodged poor tackles from Ulster.
Andrew Trimble bulldozed over for Ulster’s first try after 18 minutes on what was his 221st appearance. Charles Piutau broke the first tackle and Ulster’s leading try scorer was on hand to cross the whitewash. John Cooney added the extras to give Ulster a four-point lead.
Ulster’s poor handling and ill-discipline allowed Zebre to get a foot-hold within the game, but they did look dangerous through carries from Rodney Ah You and Piutau. As half time approached, Ulster’s attacks often concluded with an unforced error, much to the commitment of the Zebre defence. Ulster lead the Italian side 13-6 at the break.
After the interval Ulster continued their lacklustre performance. Luke Marshall fumbled in midfield after pressure from Zebre allowing the hosts to gain possession. A kick put the away side on the back foot and Zebre turned the pressure into points by levelling the game up at 13-13 as Mattia Bellini gathered a cross kick from Carlo Canna.
The Italian side scored their second try and opened up a 7 point lead. Bellini again after Marcello Viola spotted a gap around the Ulster fringes. The scrum half attracted the attention of Charles Piutau before finding the left winger who had enough pace to get to the line.
Ulster struggled with the defensive line speed from the home side which forced a high amount of handling throughout the game. John Cooney cut Zebre’s lead to four points with 18 minutes remaining. A bonus point win was the target going into the game but Ulster were struggling to create chances to secure the victory.
With 13 minutes remaining in the game, Ulster turned down a shot at goal in a kickable position in favour of going for the corner. From the line out Ulster rumbled a maul close to the line and despite Wiehahn Herbst touching down, the try was chalked off for obstruction.
Zebre capped off a fine performance with a break away try with 7 minutes remaining. Ulster were deep inside the Zebre 22m with possession but no.8 Renato Giammarioli picked off a Christian Lealiifano pass to run 80m and take the game away from Ulster.
It was a massively disappointing Ulster performance and despite Darren Cave crossing to gift Ulster the bonus point, the side will feel that it was a chance missed to cement their position at the top of Conference B. Ulster had no answer for Zebre’s intense line speed, which forced a plethora of errors when Ulster were building momentum.
Ulster’s first loss last season came in round 6 which sparked a disastrous run of only 4 wins in the next 13 matches. It’s critical that Ulster quickly put this performance behind them and bounce on to a crucial match against Connacht next week ahead of a tricky run of games in October.
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Louis Ludik, Christian Lealiifano, John Cooney; Callum Black, John Andrew, Rodney Ah You, Peter Browne, Iain Henderson, Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy, Jean Deysel. Replacements: Adam McBurney, Andrew Warwick, Wiehahn Herbst, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney, David Shanahan, Peter Nelson, Rob Lyttle.