Jackson injury adds to Ulster woes after Fitzpatrick red
Zebre 13 Ulster 6
Sifting around for positives after this one is hard labour - with Declan Fitzpatrick's 10th-minute red card foremost in the wreckage - and yet there is something to be excavated.
Even after their first ever defeat to Zebre, Ulster bizarrely managed to move up to third in the table, thanks to their losing bonus and Munster falling to the Ospreys on Saturday night.
And that's it? Pretty much. To add to Ulster's woes, Paddy Jackson picked up a head injury.
Ulster couldn't overcome a deadly cocktail of a high error count, an apparent inability to make plays stick - which may have be partly explained by the 10 changes to the side - and, of course, the early red card shown to Fitzpatrick for punching.
And not forgetting Italian TMO Carlo Damasco -somewhat over-employed by Irish referee Peter Fitzgibbon - who was asked to adjudicate after Darren Cave scampered in under the sticks to apparently rescue the game with 10 minutes left and called an obstruction earlier in the move by Tommy Bowe on Gonzalo Garcia.
Ulster were up against it from the moment Fitzpatrick trooped off, with only Zebre's lack of accuracy and confidence ensuring the visitors survived. The opening 40 minutes ended 0-0 at the Stadio XXV Aprile.
Ulster did manage to cross the Italians' line with a marvellous inside flip pass from Craig Gilroy finding Cave on the angle, but the moment Fitzgibbon opted to go upstairs, you sensed things weren't going to turn out well for the visitors.
In the second half, after Leonardo Sarto had essentially butchered two tries, Ulster's defensive shape finally gave way when prop Dario Chistolini got over in the corner and Kelly Haimona's conversion made it 7-0.
That Ulster came back - through two penalties from replacement Ian Humphreys - was to their credit, but then Haimona kicked a penalty off a retreating Ulster scrum and the coup de grace was delivered moments after Cave's disallowed try when Haimona stepped up and nailed a long-range drop goal which, yet again, brought the TMO back into play.
How ironic then that in Ulster's final attack, Cave was held up in a Les Kiss-style choke tackle to effect the last turnover on an afternoon best forgotten.
Zebre: H Daniller, G Toniolatti (Orquera 79), G Bisegni, K Haimona, L Sarto, E Padovani (Garcia 42), W Palazzani; M Aguero, A Mancini (Fabiani 50), D Chistolini (Leibson 57), Q Geldenhuys (capt), G Biagi (Ferreira 65), M Bergamasco, P Cristiano (Bernabo 56), S Vunisa
Ulster: C Gilroy, T Bowe, D Cave, S McCIoskey (Trimble 69), M Allen, P Jackson (Humphreys 45), M Heaney (Marshall 62); C Black (Murphy 69), R Herring (Best 50), D Fitzpatrick, N McComb (Stevenson 54), F van der Merwe, R Wilson (capt), C Ross (Herbst 13), N Williams (McComish 59).
Referee: P Fitzgibbon (IRFU).