Jared Payne’s first-half try helped Ulster overcome a stubborn Zebre outfit 13-6 for their fourth RaboDirect PRO12 home win in a row on Friday night.
Early penalties from Luciano Orquera and Tommaso Iannone had put second-bottom side Zebre into an early lead before Ulster hit back through Payne’s try before the break.
Ruan Piennar would also contribute eight points with his boot as the hosts, who welcomed back leading Ulster appearance holder Paddy Wallace after nine months out with an ACL injury, continued their winning record against Italian sides.
Zebre’s only RaboDirect PRO12 victory this season came against Cardiff Blues back in round three, and despite being winless in ten in all competitions, they had the stronger start, with Orquera notching an early penalty.
With wind proving to make things difficult for the kickers, the Zebre fly-half was unable to add to his tally five minutes later as he pulled his shot from the halfway line wide.
But despite having never won away from home in the RaboDirect PRO12, the visitors were giving a good account of themselves.
And when Callum Black was penalised at the scrum, Iannone, assuming kicking duties with Orquera off the pitch injured, slotted over a second penalty to give Zebre a 6-0 lead on the quarter-hour mark.
Ulster were starting to get themselves back in the game but after peppering the Zebre line, the TMO spotted a stamp by Johann Muller and the move broke down.
But they got themselves ahead ten minutes before the break, as the ball was spread wide from a line out to Payne and despite having Wallace in support, the full-back opted to go it alone, jinking in under the posts, Pienaar with the extras.
Zebre hit back straight away as wing Leonardo Sarto evaded four Ulster tackles to break towards the line, but while awarded a penalty shortly afterwards, Ulster’s defence held firm from the resulting line out.
It proved to be the last meaningful action of the half, as Ulster headed into the break one point ahead.
That difference would be extended to four points nine minutes into the second half as Piennar knocked over a penalty from in front of the posts.
Ulster, with the wind in their favour now, were cranking up the pressure, enjoying plenty of territory although Zebre’s spirited defence meant they failed to really threaten.
With Zebre only four points behind, Ulster knew they needed more of a cushion heading into the final ten minutes against their spirited opposition.
So it came as no surprise that Piennar opted to kick for goal when Zebre’s ill discipline at the breakdown handed Ulster a penalty on 72 minutes, the South Africa duly obliging for 13-6.
The Italians now needed a converted try to even take a draw but Ulster kept the pressure on until the end, although Zebre did at least pick up a losing bonus point.