Ulster tallied up six tries, including a brace from Pedrie Wannenburg, as they beat Aironi Rugby to progress through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. However, it was not enough to displace Biarritz at the top of Pool 4.
Ulster produced a strong second half performance as they cut Aironi apart and reached the Heineken Cup’s knockout stages for the first time since they won the trophy back in 1999.
However, their efforts at Stadio Zaffanella were not enough to clinch top spot in Pool 4, following a bonus point victory for Biarritz at home to Bath.
Ulster finished level on 22 points with the French side but missed out on a table-topping finish due to an inferior head-to-head record. They now go forward as one of the best runners-up.
Number 8 Pedrie Wannenburg scored twice in a man-of-the-match display, while tries from Andrew Trimble and Chris Henry, allied to a penalty try, wrapped up the bonus point before Simon Danielli added the sixth in the closing stages.
Out-half Ian Humphreys kicked 13 points, including an opening third minute penalty to help settle Ulster nerves.
But it was not until the 23rd minute that Ulster found their way over the Italians’ try-line, having come under pressure themselves from Rowland Phillips’ side before that.
South Africans Wannenburg and scrum half Ruan Pienaar combined before full-back Adam D’Arcy showed great strength to hand off Aironi flanker Vickus Liebenberg and deliver the scoring pass for Trimble.
Aironi’s Kiwi out-half James Marshall got the Italians off the mark with a penalty after a break by lively winger Pablo Canavosio.
Humphreys was off target with his second penalty attempt moments later, and when Aironi replacement Tito Tebaldi stepped up to knock over a long range penalty after 37 minutes, Ulster were holding onto a slender 10-6 lead at half-time.
But Brian McLaughlin’s men, with Paddy Wallace impressing at centre, took control of the tie with a try inside the opening minute of the second half. Wannenburg touched down from a well-executed forward drive.
Just five minutes later and Wannenburg scored again from almost the exact same move as Ulster’s pack began to dominate proceedings. Humphreys converted both tries and Ulster were looking more comfortable at 24-6.
Trimble threatened again, catching his own high kick and bursting through tackles to force Aironi into the concession of a penalty.
However, with three tries in the bag, Ulster were desperate to wrap up the bonus point, and they opted to go for the lineout instead of the posts.
Their initial drive was held up short, but from the resulting scrum Aironi’s pack crumbled and French referee Christophe Berdos made his way behind the posts to award a penalty try.
Humphreys’ easy conversion broke the 30-point barrier and Ulster, who beat Aironi at this venue in the Magners League earlier in the season, could relax for the final 20 minutes.
It was from another scrum that they grabbed their fifth try, pushing Aironi off their own set piece to hand Wannenburg a perfect attacking position. The former Springbok powered forward before offloading to replacement Henry, who picked his angle to perfection.
Wannenburg was again involved as Ulster sealed the rout with a sixth score, passing to replacement Ian Whitten who shipped on to Danielli, giving the Scottish winger a comfortable finish in the left corner. Humphreys missed the conversion, but Ulster had their work done at that stage.