Round 16 of the Guinness PRO14 continues on Saturday night with two evening kick-offs as Edinburgh host Cardiff Blues and Ulster welcome Zebre to Kingspan Stadium.
What’s at stake?
Narrow victors away to Ospreys in Round 15, Dan McFarland’s Ulster come into the clash off the back of a four-game unbeaten streak and have tasted defeat just once in Belfast over the past 12 months.
With just two points separating Ulster from Edinburgh in second, the hosts will look to take a big step towards Final Series qualification against the Italians.
Zebre, for their part, have gone without a win since Round 7, but can at least point to one positive omen ahead of the match; the men from Parma taking bragging rights the last time the two teams met back in 2017.
Team news (Ulster):
Darren Cave will earn his 222nd cap to move him to second in Ulster’s all-time appearance list, overtaking Roger Wilson’s tally of 221. The 31-year-old will now have his sights on Andrew Trimble’s club record of 229.
Cave is again joined in midfield by Stuart McCloskey, who marked a milestone last week against Ospreys with a man of the match performance in his 100th provincial game.
There is a new half-back partnership with Dave Shanahan and Peter Nelson named at scrum-half and fly-half respectively.
Robert Baloucoune has returned from injury and will line up on the right wing, with Rob Lyttle picked on the opposite flank and Louis Ludik moving to fullback.
Team news (Zebre):
In total there are seven changes in the starting XV with two in the back line – Paula Balekana will start on the wing while Nicolas De Battista goes at inside centre.
In the pack, tighthead prop Eduardo Bello is back in action, as is Leonard Krumov in the second row, pairing with captain George Biagi.
The back row is completely new, with flankers Apisai Tauyavuca and James Brown joining young No.8 Jacopo Bianchi.
Ulster backs coach Dwayne Peel has been full of praise for Stuart McCloskey, after his 100th appearance for the province last time out: “He’s huge – a great leader for us. Anyone who watches us knows how big he is for us. He never takes a step backwards and he carries a lot of ball for us. He’s probably battered after every game but fair play to him. If you watch him in training, his catch-pass stuff is excellent. He can pass a ball as well as anyone. Showing that in games, people are surprised but they shouldn’t be. He’s one of the best ball-players in our squad, definitely.”
Key battle – George Biagi v Kieran Treadwell
The battle at lock in this match will be a fascinating one, with experienced second row George Biagi going up against sprightly youngster Kieran Treadwell. At 33, Biagi has done it all, including winning 23 caps for Italy, and will use all of his experience to attempt to skipper his side to victory. Up against him you have Treadwell, 23, and surely one of the fastest locks in world rugby, having played as a wing in his youth.
Key fact: Ulster Rugby are unbeaten in their last four matches in all competitions since their defeat to Leinster at the RDS Arena in round 13 of the Guinness PRO14.
Did you know? The Italians have achieved five previous victories over Irish opponents in the Championship; two at home to Ulster and two at home and one away against Connacht.
Ulster: Louis Ludik; Robert Baloucoune, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle; Peter Nelson, Dave Shanahan, Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor (captain), Kieran Treadwell, Clive Ross, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney
Replacements: John Andrew, Andy Warwick, Ross Kane, Ian Nagle, Greg Jones, Jonny Stewart, Johnny McPhillips, James Hume.
Zebre: Francois Brummer, Paula Balekana, Giulio Bisegni, Nicolas De Battista, James Elliott, Carlo Canna, Joshua Renton, Daniele Rimpelli, Oliviero Fabiani, Eduardo Bello, Leonard Krumov, George Biagi (cap), Apisai Tauyavuca, James Brown, Jacopo Bianchi
Replacements: Luhandre Luus, Danilo Fischetti, Roberto Tenga, Lorenzo Masselli, Alessandro Mordacci, Riccardo Raffaele, Maicol Azzolini, Giovanbattista Venditti
TV: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, KO 19.35, Live on Free Sports, DAZN
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)
AR1: Lloyd Linton (SRU) AR2: Sam Grove-White (SRU)
TMO: Ken Henley-Willis (IRFU)
Three tries for Rob Herring set up a ruthless performance from Ulster as they surged past Zebre at the Kingspan.
Rob Lyttle, Robert Baloucoune and Peter Nelson all added scores either side of half time, with the Italians only managing a penalty try as they returned home empty handed.
Herring plundered over the line from a driving maul line-out to open the scoring, after Zebre had gone a man down when James Brown was sent to the bin.
The hooker then repeated the trick just five minutes later, Ulster capitalising on the extra man in the pack to power Zebre back and Herring dived over from close range.
Lyttle converted this one however, leaving it 12-0 after 20 minutes at the Kingspan.
But the hosts were also reduced to 14 when Louis Ludik deliberately knocked on to prevent Zebre scoring in the corner, meaning a yellow card and a penalty try.
Herring then completed his hat-trick on the half-hour mark biding his time at the back of the driving maul line-out to pounce as soon as he was within reach of the line for a mirror-image third.
Lyttle added to Zebre’s woes on the stroke of half time, diving over in the corner after quick hands put him in.
The winger converted his own score to make it 26-7 at the break.
Ulster continued the second half in much the same way, their strength up front proving too much in the rolling maul and referee Mike Adamson awarded a penalty try as Zebre illegally brought it down.
Ludik made up for his error earlier in the game when he broke through a gap in the Italians’ defence and dived over for Ulster’s sixth score.
The extras were added by Lyttle making it 40-7 with around half an hour left.
Ulster then hit seventh heaven with some lightning-fast hands putting Baloucoune in space on the wing to trot over, with Lyttle once more converting.
Nelson put the cherry on the top with a powerful run, shaking of multiple defenders to crash over and take Ulster over the 50-point mark.