Ulster's first-ever Magners League clash in Italy started with the concession of three early points, Aironi's French out-half Ludovic Mercier kicking over from distance on seven minutes. O'Connor levelled affairs on 15 minutes with his first penalty of the tie, and Ulster rapidly built on their first score with an energetic forward surge, blighted only by a marginally-forward layoff from Paul Marshall to Diack on the Aironi 22-metre line.
Ulster continued to make all the running, and were rewarded on 22 minutes with another penalty on the right touchline. From a difficult angle and barely inside the Aironi half, O'Connor got his geometry spot-on to fire his side into the lead at Aironi 3 Ulster 6.
Around the half-hour mark, the Herons began to put together some constructive movements, but with Number 8 Nick Williams yellow-carded on 33 minutes for both coming in from the side and using abusive language, the tide turned back in Ulster's favour. O'Connor had the chance to make it three in a row on 36 minutes, but his kick, again from a tricky angle on the right, missed on this occasion. Then, from a quick restart, the Italians burst up the field, to eventually draw level from a second Mercier penalty after the same player had failed to land a drop goal.
With the first half well into overtime Ulster staged one last attack, with surging runs from Wallace and Diack in particular. A series of quick exchanges later, O'Connor looped a pass to Henry on the left wing, but the lock, not quite endowed with the pace of a Simon Danielli or an Andrew Trimble, and was bundled into touch before he could reach the line. Ulster were to go in at the break in front, however, as a further infringement by Aironi in the centre allowed O'Connor to land his third set of points on the stroke of half-time.
Half-Time Score Aironi 6 Ulster 9
Aironi were back on level terms within two minutes of the restart, Mercier this time succeeding with the drop goal. Errors then began creeping into the Ulster game, and a high tackle by Darren Cave on the 52-minute mark allowed Aironi to steal 60 metres and move into a promising position on the left flank. With Pedrie Wannenburg penalised from the put-in, Mercier was able to nudge his side back into the lead at Aironi 12 Ulster 9.
O'Connor had the chance to equalise on 55 minutes with a penalty of his own, but the kick veered wide of the right upright. He atoned three minutes later from in front of the posts with Aironi replacement Luca Redolfini binned for deliberately slowing down play. This time Ulster went on to make good use of their numerical advantage, registering the encounter's sole try on the hour mark thanks to Diack, who seized on a speculative Mercier pass and outran the veteran out-half to the line. The O'Connor conversion consolidated the lead at Aironi 12 Ulster 19.
Mercier wasted no time in clawing back three points with yet another penalty, setting the game up for a nail-biting last 10 minutes where the next score would surely be decisive. Williams, risking a red card after his first half indiscretions, was again penalised on 72 minutes for hands in the ruck, and O'Connor split the posts to edge the tie closer to safety at Aironi 15 Ulster 22.
The final five minutes were not without drama, however, as Pedrie Wannenburg found himself in exile on the bench for failing to roll away after the tackle. In the ensuing Aironi push, Williams looked to have grounded the ball, but no try was awarded as the video replay showed Ian Porter to have somehow managed to wedge himself between the ball and the Stadio Luigi Zaffanella turf.
The Italians sustained their attack until the final whistle, but the visitors' defence proved its mettle and ensured the second successive victory of the season, which elevated the Ulstermen to second place in the Magners League standings.
Full-Time Score Aironi 15 Ulster 22
www.ulsterrugby.com spoke to Ulster Head Coach Brian McLaughlin after the game to get his reaction;
"We are very happy to have the win. It was hard fought though, and we made heavy work of it"
"We made a lot of errors and our set piece was just not clinical enough, so while the result is pleasing, the performance was less so."
"However, away wins, in particular, are hard to come by and I'm very pleased and a little relieved to have taken the points away from this trip. Over the past couple of weeks Aironi have shown that they are more the capable of competing in the Magners League."
"We're not getting ahead of ourselves, it's a very long season but from a results point of view it's hard not to be happy with two wins from two. Edinburgh at Ravenhill next Friday will be another tough proposition and we've got plenty to work on."
Prop Declan Fitzpatrick was forced to leave the field early in the first half with a leg injury,which will be assessed on return from Italy but despite the physical encounter at this stage there appear to be no major injury concerns.
Next up for Ulster is a home match against Edinburgh next Friday 17th September, 8.05pm.
Aironi (15 - 9) J Laharrague, G Rubini, R Quartaroli, D Des Fountain, G Toniolatti, L Mercier, T Tebaldi (1 - 8) Al. De Marchi, F Ongaro, S Perugini, C Del Fava, Q Geldenhuys (c), J Erasmus, G Krause, N Williams
Replacements (16 - 22)An. De Marchi, L Ferraro, L Redolfini, M Bortolami, J Sole, P Canavosio, A Benettin, G Pizarro
Ulster (15 - 9) A D'Arcy, T Seymour, D Cave, P Wallace, D McIlwaine, N O'Connor, P Marshall (1 - 8) T Court, N Brady, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (c), T Barker, P Wannenburg, C Henry, R Diack
Replacements (16 - 22)A Kyriacou, B Young, P McAllister, R Caldwell, W Faloon, I Porter, I Whitten, J Smith
|Aironi Rugby Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|