On paper, the Ulster matchday squad was significantly strengthened by the inclusion of several members of the extended Ireland Six Nations talent pool. Declan Fitzpatrick and Chris Henry - who both featured as replacements in last Sunday's defeat to England - came straight back into the provincial starting XV, as did Iain Henderson, previously retained for the national squad, but not used by Declan Kidney in either of the first two tests. Elsewhere, John Afoa returned to the replacements bench after a short stay in his native New Zealand.
Ulster could have burst ahead on the scoresheet within the opening 30 seconds, as Luke Marshall bravely charged down Daniel Halangahu's firmly-struck clearance kick, but the pace on the ball carried it into touch before the chasing Darren Cave could catch up. The next home attack proved an even closer shave for the Italians, as Chris Cochrane's left boot erred into touch a fraction of a second before he grounded by the left-hand corner flag, the culmination of a move started by a fine individual charge through the middle by Ruan Pienaar.
Zebre's luck ran out at this point, however, as an easy Ulster steal at the resulting five-metre line-out allowed Herring in for an eighth-minute try, converted from a tight angle by Pienaar for Ulster 7 Zebre 0.
The match pursued a sluggish path for 20 minutes or so after this bright opening, with Zebre more than holding their own in terms of possession, and indeed the visitors were next on the scoresheet, courtesy of a central Halangahu penalty in the 33rd minute.
The concession served as a wake-up call for Ulster, with good recycling from a well-worked line-out asking serious questions of the Italian defence, which proved more than capable as it offered several minutes' worth of stubborn resistance. After a pause to allow the injured Marshall to limp off with a knock and be replaced by Stuart Olding, Ulster benefited from a combination of guile and good fortune from Pienaar, as the scrum-half smartly latched onto Andrew Trimble's punt forward and beat several men before seeing his attempted return pass to the winger bounce off an back-tracking Italian defender.
Luck shone on the Springbok, however, as the ball rebounded back into his grasp, and he was able to set off a chain of cross-field passes which finished with Diack grounding the try in the left-hand corner. Pienaar's conversion spun wide, but the lead was a clear nine points at the break.
Half-Time Score Ulster 12 Zebre 3
With Afoa, a half-time entrant in lieu of Fitzpatrick, using all his power to break tackles as the second period got underway, Ulster looked a tougher prospect, and Henderson was unlucky to fall inches short of a try on 46 minutes as the Italian upright prevented him reaching over the line under several heavy challenges. Three close-range scrums followed - the first two illegally turned by the Zebre pack - and while the third worked according to plan, Pienaar's pass as the ball was hooked out was much too strong, and flew into touch before its target Cochrane could get near it.
Despite this setback, Ulster's dominance was now clearly marked, and it wasn't long before Diack's second of the evening came about on 57 minutes, thanks in no small part to a fine crossfield line and dummy from Trimble, followed by sharp recycling and an astute short pass from Cave to find the Number Eight in front of the posts. Pienaar converted to raise the scoreline to Ulster 19 Zebre 3 just before the hour.
As Dublin-born winger Neil Walsh came on for his first appearance in white and red with 15 minutes remaining, Ulster still had plenty to do in order to secure the fourth-try bonus point.
Replacement scrum-half Michael Heaney made a valuable contribution to the effort on 70 minutes with a darting run, reminiscent of Paul Marshall, through the Zebre defence and, as Ulster pressed from a subsequent scrum, it was another rising star, full-back Andrew, who displayed the requisite power and craft to beat his men and breach the line. Pienaar's angled conversion split the posts to raise the home tally to 26, and complete a satisfying night's work for the Ulstermen.
The bonus could yet prove of the highest importance, as, with Glasgow scoring a hatful of tries tonight at the Dragons, it keeps Ulster seven points clear of their nearest rivals in advance of next Friday's first-meets-second clash at Scotstoun.
Full-Time Score Ulster 26 Zebre 3
(15 - 9) R Andrew; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Cochrane; P Jackson, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (c), L Stevenson, I Henderson, C Henry, R Diack
Replacements (16 - 23) N Annett, C Black, J Afoa, N McComb, M McComish, M Heaney, S Olding, N Walsh
(15 - 9) P Buso; L Sarto, A Benettin, G Garcia, S Sinoti; D Halangahu, A Chillon
(1 - 8) A De Marchi, A Manici, L Redolfini, m van Vuren, M Bortolami (c), F Cristiano, M Bergamasco, J Sole
Replacements (16 - 23) C Festuccia, M Agüero, F Fazzari, N Belardo, A van Schalkwyk, D Odiete, A Chiesa, M Pratichetti
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Zebre Score Card|