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Ulster's winning start to the season unravels against Bradley's bold Zebre

A late intercept try sealed the northern province’s fate, but the writing was on the wall long before that.

Zebre 27

Ulster 23

ULSTER’S PROMISING START to the season was torn up and set alight as they were outfought and outplayed by Michael Bradley’s Zebre in Parma.

The northern province will have kicked off with an aspiration to pull themselves top of Pro14 Conference B tonight after taking an unblemished four-from-four record to Italy. By the time 15 second half minutes had elapsed though, they were in deep trouble against a Zebre side that sparkled in attack and was vicious in contact.

Mattio Bellini made himself the star of the first half as the powerful wing relentlessly popped up for carrying work and caused the Ulster defence plenty of headaches on top of the expansive approach from the hosts.

Marcello Violi tackled by Iain Henderson Source: Federico Matteucci/INPHO

That high tempo employed by Bradley’s men forced Ulster into conceding two kickable penalties in the first five minutes. Carlo Canna slotted the first one confidently, but blazed the second attempt wide of the posts when the angle seemed to present little difficulty.

It felt like a  screw-turning opportunity passed up, because by the time Canna did register his second penalty of the contest, Ulster had found their way to the try-line. Agile evasive running from Charles Piutau grated away the Italian defence and the offload invited Andrew Trimble to power over in the 16th minute.

Canna’s range continued to be an issue for Zebre as he pulled a 26th minute effort wide, denying the hosts the reward of a lead for their adventurous running rugby. The Azzurri out-half ended the half with two successful attempts from four. Meanwhile John Cooney’s three from three ratio ensured Ulster took a 6 – 13 advantage into the break despite their stutters.

To Canna’s credit, he erased that deficit within nine minutes of the restart. A speculative kick into Ulster’s left corner bounced in front of Louis Ludik and the versatile back was ploughed through by Bisegni. Zebre attacked wide off the turnover and Ulster couldn’t adjust to protect the corner where Ludik lay prone, so Canna chipped an excellent cross-field kick into the arms of blindside Giovanni Licata.

Michael Bradley Michael Bradley, took charge of the Italian outfit this summer. Source: Federico Matteucci/INPHO

There was a swagger of certainty about Canna as he slotted the resulting conversion to level the contest and Zebre backed up that confidence within three minutes when Matteo Minozzi raided through a bewildered Ulster back-line and provided Bellini with a deserved score.

20 – 13 down and struggling to find a creative spark nor sustained pressure, Ulster at least managed to stem the flow in a disjointed period of the game. Cooney kicked his fourth goal to narrow the deficit, but it proved his last act of the day as Dave Shanahan was sent on in his place.

Ulster powered their way over the line soon after, however, what Wiehahn Herbst thought was a try to put his side in the lead was belatedly called back after referee Mike Adamson and his TMO took an excruciatingly long look back at the preceding maul.

Still, with over 10 minutes on the clock and four points between the sides, Ulster had every reason to remain confident. That is until every last drop of momentum was sucked out of the visitors. Christian Lealiifano’s 71st minute pass to Iain Henderson was easily telegraphed by number eight Renato Giammarioli, who pinned his ears back and emptied the tank to run the 80 metres to the try-line.

George Biagi Source: Federico Matteucci/INPHO

That was Ulster’s fate sealed, though they did put a very late question mark on the outcome as Darren Cave started and finished a sweeping back-line move.

Too little, too late. So Ulster go home with the defeat they deserve.

Scorers

Zebre

Tries: G Licata, M Bellini, R Giammarioli

Conversions: C Canna (1/1) M Violi (2/2)

Penalties: C Canna (2/4)

Ulster

Tries: A Trimble, D Cave

Conversions: J Cooney (1/1) (D Cave (1/1)

Penalties: J Cooney (3/3)

Zebre: M Minozzi, G Bisegni, T Boni, T Castello, M Bellini, C Canna (S Bordoli ’73), M Violi, A Lovotti (S Panico ’41), O Fabiani, D Chistolini (E Bello ’62), D Sisi L Krumow ’48) , G Biagi, G Licata, J Meyer, R Giammarioli (J Sarto ’74)

Ulster: C Piutau, A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, L Ludik (R Lyttle ’49), C Lealiifano, J Cooney (D Shanahan ’63),  C Black (A Warwick ’49), J Andrew, R Ah You (W Herbst ’49), P Browne (K Treadwell ’27), I Henderson, M Rea, S Reidy, J Deysel (N Timoney ’55)

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Sean Farrell

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