4 Dec, 10:19
Grand Slam winners Fiona Coghlan and Nora Stapelton have returned the Women's RBS 6 Nations trophy to Chief Executive John Feehan at the Six Nations offices in Dublin.
Robbie Diack did his rising stock as a first choice back rower no harm whatsoever with a try in each half, topped up by scores from Rob Herring and Ricky Andrew as the province's performance significantly improved as the match wore on.
On paper, the Ulster matchday squad was significantly strengthened by the inclusion of several members of the extended Ireland Six Nations talent pool.
Declan Fitzpatrick and Chris Henry, who both featured as replacements in last Sunday's defeat to England, came straight back into the Ulster team, as did fellow international Iain Henderson. Elsewhere, John Afoa returned to the replacements bench after a short stay in his native New Zealand.
Ulster could have burst ahead on the scoresheet within the opening 30 seconds, as Luke Marshall bravely charged down Daniel Halangahu's clearance kick, but the pace on the ball carried it into touch before the chasing Darren Cave could reach it.
The next home attack proved an even closer shave for the Italians, as Chris Cochrane's left boot grazed the touchline a fraction of a second before he grounded the ball in the left corner, the culmination of a move started by a fine individual charge by Ruan Pienaar with Andrew Trimble providing a deft final pass.
Zebre's luck ran out at this point, however, as an easy Ulster steal at the resulting five-metre lineout allowed hooker Herring in for an eighth minute try, converted from a tight angle by Pienaar.
The match lulled along at a sluggish pace for 20 minutes or so after this bright opening, with Zebre more than holding their own in terms of possession. Indeed, the visitors were next on the scoresheet courtesy of a central Halangahu penalty.
That 34th minute concession served as a wake-up call for Ulster. Good recycling from a well-worked lineout asked serious questions of an Italian defence which proved more than capable as it offered several minutes' worth of stubborn resistance.
After a pause to allow the injured Luke Marshall limp off and be replaced by Stuart Olding, Ulster benefited from a combination of guile and good fortune from Pienaar as they built for a timely second try.
The scrum half latched onto Trimble's punt forward and beat several men before seeing his attempted return pass to the winger bounce off an back-tracking Italian defender.
Luck shone on the Springbok, however, as the ball rebounded back into his grasp and he was able to set off a chain of cross-field passes which finished with Diack grounding the try in the left corner. Pienaar's conversion spun wide, but the lead was a clear nine points at the break - 12-3.
With Afoa, a half-time replacement for Fitzpatrick, using all his power to break tackles as the second period got underway, Ulster looked in fine fettle.
Henderson was unlucky to fall inches short of a try in the 46th minute as the Italian upright prevented him reaching over the line under several heavy challenges.
Three close-range scrums followed - the first two illegally turned by the Zebre pack - and while the third worked according to plan, Pienaar's pass as the ball was hooked out was much too strong and flew into touch before its target Cochrane could get near it.
Despite this setback, Ulster's dominance was now clearly marked. It was not long before Diack's second score of the evening came about on 57 minutes.
It was thanks in no small part to a fine cross-field line and dummy from Trimble, followed by sharp recycling and an astute pass from Cave to find the number 8 in front of the posts. Pienaar converted to make it 19-3 to Mark Anscombe's men.
As Dublin-born winger Neil Walsh came on for his first appearance in white and red with 15 minutes remaining, Ulster still had plenty to do in order to secure the bonus point.
Replacement scrum half Michael Heaney made a valuable contributionwith a darting run, reminiscent of Paul Marshall, through the Zebre defence.
Ulster pressed from a subsequent scrum and it was another rising star, full-back Andrew, who displayed the requisite power and craft to beat his man and cross the try-line for the first time at this level.
Pienaar's angled conversion split the posts to raise the home tally to 26 points and complete a satisfying night's work for the Ulstermen.
The bonus point could yet prove of the highest importance as, with Glasgow scoring a hatful of tries tonight against the Dragons, it keeps Ulster seven points clear of their nearest rivals. They meet at Scotstoun Stadium in the next round.
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Zebre Score Card|