Ulster's first-half performance was not vintage rugby, although they put pressure on the Italians straight from the kick-off, progressing pragmatically and forcing an early penalty, which Ian Humphreys dispatched with only three minutes gone to settle some early nerves. Aironi had an immediate chance to strike back from long-range after Stephen Ferris had been penalised for not rolling away, but the Italians opted for a line-out and the offensive soon broke down.
An obstruction by Fitzpatrick on 15 minutes gave Aironi a second opportunity, and this time the line-out and charge worked well, until a forward pass stopped them in their tracks and let Ulster off the hook inside their own '22'. Then, 23 minutes in, Ulster stepped up a gear, with D'Arcy picking up from Pienaar from the scrum, and showing good, unselfish decision-making by supplying Andrew Trimble at the right moment. The Ireland international wing grounded the much-needed try, and Humphreys was on hand to convert and raise the score to Aironi 0 Ulster 10.
Poor Ulster reception of the kick-off gave Aironi an immediate opportunity to strike back, which James Marshall seized with a drop-goal just before the half-hour mark. An errant Humphreys penalty followed, and as the half progressed, Aironi set about taking control of the play. On 36 minutes, Ulster's sixth penalty conceded proved costly, with Aironi's replacement scrum-half Tito Tebaldi splitting the posts to reduce the gap to four points.
Half-Time Score Aironi 6 Ulster 10
The second half was an entirely different affair. It started ideally for the Ulstermen, with Dan Tuohy making his presence felt at an early line-out and setting up an old-fashioned five-metre rolling maul which culminated in Pedrie Wannenburg touching down. Humphreys converted to stretch the lead again at Aironi 6 Ulster 17.
A further Italian infringement minutes later gave Ulster another line-out in the danger zone, and it was a case of 'as you were' as the forwards drove on once more, and Wannenburg doubled his tally with another muscular try. Humphreys' kick was again on-target, as Ulster soared ahead at Aironi 6 Ulster 24.
Then, on 57 minutes, when a five-metre scrum was twice whipped around illegally by Aironi, referee M. Berdos did not hesitate in awarding Ulster the penalty try, sealing the victory and the crucial bonus point to give Ulster the best chance of topping Pool Four. Humphreys steered the conversion over, extending the lead to Aironi 6 Ulster 31.
With Biarritz sitting on a victory and three tries against Bath with 20 minutes remaining in the simultaneous matches, Ulster's destiny to qualify either as group leaders or best-placed runners-up was now out of their hands. As the match in Viadana progressed, Wannenburg could have easily secured his hat-trick on 67 minutes after a steal at the Aironi scrum, but unselfishly set up Chris Henry for try number five. Humphreys converted to make it Aironi 6 Ulster 38 just as the news filtered through from south-west France that Biarritz winger Takudzwa Ngwenya had snatched a fourth try and guaranteed the top spot for the Basques.
Ulster closed the match still on the attack and striving for try number six, which came when man of the match Wannenburg supplied Simon Danielli via Ian Whitten, and although Humphreys scuffed the conversion, the score stood at an epic Aironi 6 Ulster 43.
The match, and the group stage, ended then with Ulster on 22 points after five victories and a solitary defeat, but second in the table to Biarritz who, despite having lost two ties, had amassed a bonus point in each of their six games. Brian McLaughlin's men and the Basques now join Leinster, Toulouse, Northampton and Toulon in the quarter finals, with the last two qualifiers - and Ulster's next opponents - to be decided tomorrow.
Full-Time Score Aironi 6 Ulster 43
(15 - 9) J Laharrague; P Canavosio, R Penney, G Pavan, M Pratichetti; J Marshall, M Wilson
(1 - 8) M Aguero, F Ongaro, F Staibano, M Bortolami, Q Geldenhuys, V Liebenburg, J Erasmus, J Sole
Replacements (16 - 23) R Santamaria, S Perugini, A de Marchi, C Del Fava, A Birchall, T Tebaldi, R Bocchino, G Pizzaro
(15 - 9) A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, N Brady, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (c), D Tuohy, S Ferris, W Faloon, P Wannenburg
Replacements (16 - 23) A Kyriacou, B Young, J Cronin, T Barker, C Henry, P Marshall, I Whitten, D McIlwaine
|Aironi Rugby Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|