Ulster eye Leinster scalp after bonus-point romp
Zebre 17 Ulster 47
Ulster took charge of their Pro12 play-off destiny with a seven-try blitzing of Zebre at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
The win, coupled with Scarlets' heavy home defeat to Glasgow, saw Les Kiss's side return to the top four and left them knowing that nine points from their remaining two games against Leinster and Ospreys will guarantee them a semi-final spot come mid-May.
The visitors' back three did the vast majority of the damage, with Jared Payne - deployed at full-back - providing a hat-trick, Tommy Bowe adding a brace on his return from six months out with a knee injury and top scorer Craig Gilroy finishing another.
Scrum-half Ruan Pienaar had grabbed the first to set Ulster on their way.
For Stuart Olding, it was a case of job done and on to Leinster at home in two weeks.
"We came here on a mission to get five points," said the inside centre.
"It's mission accomplished and we're back in the play-off positions.
"We need two wins from our next two games so we'll have a good training week this week and into Leinster.
"It's a massive game, a nice derby interpro at the end of the Pro12. They're going pretty well at the minute, so it'll be tough, but hopefully we can get the win and take it from there."
Part of a backline that showed some real signs of kicking into gear late in the season, Olding was pleased with the contributions of those behind the pack, especially the control shown by out-half Paddy Jackson during his 43 minutes with a hand on the tiller.
"Zebre at home are a different animal and we knew we had to come here, start well and score whenever we were in their 22," he added.
"We did that and let them in for one, but thankfully not too many more.
"It was nice to play in the sun for a change and I think everyone had a good buzz when we arrived.
"The pitch promoted running rugby, which is the style we want to play, but haven't been able to for the last few weeks. Some things really clicked. A few didn't, so we'll look at those but we'll take that. I haven't had too much time outside Jacko (Paddy Jackson) for the last while, so it was good.
"To play 12, I really enjoyed it and I think our games work well together as the two play-makers.
"We know each other's games really well and we can adapt to each other. I thought he was excellent today before he unfortunately had to go off and I slipped into 10."
Ulster led after just two minutes when Jackson exploited a big gap in the Zebre defensive line and put Ruan Pienaar over the line underneath the posts. While the hosts came back to tie the score soon after through Guglielmo Palazzani, Ulster's superior quality was evident from there.
Bowe scored the first of his two tries after a nice pass from Jackson before Craig Gilroy - scoring his eighth Pro12 try of the year - and Payne wrapped up the bonus point before half-time.
Payne struck again soon after the restart and completed his quick-fire hat-trick with just under half an hour remaining.
Bowe finished off Ulster's try scoring just minutes before the final whistle, which Olding converted.
Zebre: K van Zyl (U Beyers 49); D Berryman, G Bisegni (T Boni 55), M Pratichetti, L Sarto; C Canna, G Palazzani; A Lovotti (A de Marchi 54), O Fabiani (B Postiglioni 58), P Ceccarelli (D Chistolini 46); Q Geldenhuys (c), V Bernabo (M Bortolami 47); J Cook, F Ruzza (E Caffini 53), G Koegelenberg.
Ulster: J Payne; T Bowe, L Marshall (R Scholes 73), S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson (D Cave 43), R Pienaar (P Marshall 63); C Black (K McCall 54), R Best (c) (R Herring 46), R Lutton (A Warwick 63), P Browne, F van der Merwe (R Diack 46), I Henderson, S Reidy, R Wilson (C Henry 46).
REF: N Owens (Wales).