The crucial nature of tonight's tie in McLaughlin's mind was underlined by the strong selection he fielded, with first-choice Ireland internationals Best, Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble all returning to the first XV, where they were joined by Wannenburg, fully recovered from a recent illness. Indeed, the only personnel choice which may have raised a few eyebrows was the inclusion of Lewis Stevenson at lock at the expense of Dan Tuohy, but the thinking behind even this was transparent, given the rich vein of form Stevenson has enjoyed of late.
Ulster made the marginally brighter opening, with an early highlight the sight of Craig Gilroy in full flight, tearing down the left wing in pursuit of a Stefan Terblanche kick. Aironi dealt with the danger competently at the first time of asking however, and indeed almost fashioned a try of their own on nine minutes, some slick passing bringing them well inside the Ulster '22' before a slight knock-on undid their progress.
Ulster's first score came on 13 minutes, grounded at the posts by Wallace after Aironi had ceded possession cheaply at the line-out deep in their own territory. Pienaar, whose half-back partner Humphreys had been instrumental in Wallace's try with his patient timing of the final pass, converted to round the score off nicely at Ulster 7 Aironi 0.
Pienaar then kicked an 18th minute penalty into the corner and, after a well-worked Ulster line-out and repeated infringement at subsequent scrums from the Italians, referee Neil Paterson had no option but to award the penalty try on 22 minutes. Pienaar added the extras once again and, keen to build on the lead without delay, fine interplay between the South African and Cave in Ulster's very next attack only narrowly failed to unlock the Herons' defence for a third time.
Terblanche had Ravenhill on its feet just before the half-hour mark with a blistering crossfield dash that left half of the Italian side in his wake before he was eventually bullied out of possession on the right wing, but to their credit the visitors showed grit and determination as the threat of a whitewash loomed, and were awarded on 34 minutes through a try by scrum-half Tito Tibaldi after some Ulster hesitation at their opponents' line-out. Naas Olivier converted to reduce the deficit to seven points, but this remained the case for less than a minute, as Pienaar slotted over a penalty from the '22' to make it Ulster 17 Aironi 7.
Despite losing Ferris to injury moments before the concession of the try, Ulster's confidence proved unaffected, and try number three was registered just prior to the break. After the award of a penalty and the presentation of a yellow card to Italian full-back Giulio Toniolatti for repeated infringement, a strong rolling maul from the line-out saw Best go over for the score, and Pienaar convert with the last kick of the half.
Half-Time Score Ulster 24 Aironi 7
A patchy opening to the second half was soon smoothed out by the scoring of the bonus-point try on 45 minutes, Ulster's centre partnership teaming up to good effect as Wallace set up Cave with the killer pass. Pienaar's conversion maintained his 100% scoring record for the night, and the try tally could have risen to five only instants later, had the Springbok's final pass to Gilroy not fallen slightly behind the speedy winger after strong ball-carrying in the middle of the park from Wannenburg.
A 15-minute period of Aironi pressure then ensued, but proved barren of any points on the scoreboard, and clinical Ulster showed their superiority on 62 minutes as Court stretched over the line to score the fifth try at the culmination of the hosts' first meaningful attack in 20 minutes. Humphreys, taking over kicking duties from the recently-departed Pienaar, curled his conversion to perfection to make it Ulster 38 Aironi 7.
With the match won, the bonus point secured and 10 minutes remaining, Ulster began to turn on the style, with Humphreys' sweet reverse pass, and moments later his probing kick to the corner in search of Trimble, eliciting the appreciation of the Ravenhill faithful. However, when try number six came on 74 minutes, through Wannenburg on the occasion of his 50th cap, it was more the product of good, old-fashioned graft from the forwards, and a measure of brute force from the Number Eight as he bludgeoned his way over the line.
With Humphreys' conversion true once again, the score rose to Ulster 45 Aironi 7, and this is how the match ended, despite Ulster's valiant efforts to snatch a late seventh try which would break the 50-point barrier. The worry injuries about Stephen Ferris aside (the flanker is due to have a scan on his ankle in the coming days), Ulster now go into Easter Sunday's Heineken Cup quarter final showdown with Munster full of confidence.
Full-Time Score Ulster 45 Aironi 7
(15 - 9) S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (c), L Stevenson; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg
Replacements (16 - 23) N Brady, P McAllister, A Macklin, D Tuohy, P Marshall, I Whitten, A D'Arcy
(15 - 9) G Toniolatti; S Sinoti, R Quartaroli, M Pratichetti, G Venditti; N Olivier, T Tebaldi
(1 - 8) Alberto De Marchi, F Ongaro, F Staibano; G Biagi, C Del Fava (c); J Furno, N Cattina, M Bergamasco
Replacements (16 - 23) A Denti, Andrea De Marchi, S Perugini, Q Geldenhuys, F Ferrarini, T Keats, L Orquera, G Pavan
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Aironi Rugby Score Card|