Ulster wasted no time in getting started, with an exhilarating burst from Darren Cave in the first minute earning some good territory, before the ball broke to Ruan Pienaar just outside the 22. The scrum-half looked ready to pick up where he had left off after his grandstand performance against Glasgow, as he squared up to take on five or six men at once, but was quickly neutralised by the vigilant Italian defence. Ulster soon forced a penalty, however, which Pienaar dispatched from in front of the posts to get scoring underway at Ulster 3 Aironi 0.
A string of penalties then followed one after another. Aironi's veteran French out-half Ludovic Mercier equalised on five minutes, and could have edged his team into the lead five minutes later, but pulled his kick wide. Then it was Pienaar's turn to miss by an even slighter margin, clattering the left upright in the fourteenth minute. Finally, Mercier split the posts to end the series of errant kicks on 17 minutes, putting the Italians ahead at Ulster 3 Aironi 6.
Ulster reacted with composure and craft, firstly through an abortive raid by Cave brought back by an offside call, and then, decisively, through Andrew Trimble, who picked up on the right wing after some powerful mauling by the influential Robbie Diack. Pienaar's conversion was off-target, but Ulster had taken the lead with the very first try of the 2010/ 2011 Heineken Cup.
With Aironi's Marco Bartolami sinbinned on the half-hour mark for deliberately killing the ball, Ulster turned the pressure up a notch but, despite some progressive rugby - with a lightning-quick burst from Jamie Smith and Simon Danielli a stand-out moment - they failed to find the final killer ball. Bartolami returned to the field on 39 minutes with the score as it had been when he left but, ironically, as soon as Aironi were back to full strength, they fell further behind as Pienaar slotted over his second successful penalty of the evening on the stroke of half-time.
Half-Time Score Ulster 11 Aironi 6
Ulster came out for the second half determined to play a simpler, more direct approach, which paid dividends on 44 minutes when Ian Humphreys chased his own kick and capitalised on hesitant defending from the statuesque Italians to touch down in the left-hand corner. Pienaar's conversion went awry but the score sat comfortably at Ulster 16 Aironi 6.
Paddy Wallace and replacement Ian Whitten then combined on the right wing to produce the game's prettiest move thus far, but one pass too many got Ulster bogged down metres from the right-hand flag and the chance went begging. On the hour mark, Aironi got a rare excursion into the Ulster half, but posed little real threat, and before the Italians knew it, a Rory Best - Johann Muller tandem was rampaging down the right wing. A series of quick cross-field exchanges then found Simon Danielli wide on the left, and the Scot did well to hang on to the spinning ball and ground the third try in the corner. Humphreys, taking over kicking duties from Pienaar, converted to put the score at Ulster 23 Aironi 6.
After a false alarm on 63 minutes when Ulster touched down again in the left corner only to have play called back for an accidental offside, Pienaar secured the all-important fourth try and bonus point when he picked up five metres from the line and drove over. Humphreys kept up his 100% kicking record with the conversion to put some sheen on the score at Ulster 30 Aironi 6.
Defeated but not disheartened, Aironi mounted perhaps their most promising attack in the dying minutes, but proved to be lacking in penetration in the final quarter of the park, and Ulster resisted until the final whistle with energy to spare. A sterner task doubtless awaits in Biarritz next weekend in the second round of matches, but Brian McLauhglin's men head to the Basque Country in form, unbeaten in all competitions, and with maximum European points under their belts.
Full-Time Score Ulster 30 Aironi 6
(15 - 9) J Smith, A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, S Danielli, I Humphreys, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) B Young, R Best (c), T Court, J Muller, T Barker, P Wannenburg, C Henry, R Diack
Replacements (16 - 23) N Brady, P McAllister, A Whitten, D Tuohy, W Faloon, P Marshall, I Whitten, D McIlwaine
(15 - 9) D Demas, G Toniolatti, R Penney, G Pavan, G Venditti, L Mercier, T Tebaldi
(1 - 8) Al. De Marchi, R Santamaria, L Redolfini, C Del Fava (c), M Bortolami, A Benatti, A Birchill, N Williams
Replacements (16 - 23) L Ferraro, An. De Marchi, S Perugini, V Liebenburg, N Cattina, P Canavosio, G Pizarro, R Bocchino
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Aironi Rugby Score Card|