Payne brilliance gets below-par Ulster out of jail
Ulster 13 Zebre 6
A much-changed young Ulster side struggled to put away lowly Italian outfit Zebre at a wet and windy Ravenhill.
There was little festive cheer for the fans, and only a piece of magic by Jared Payne spared the home side from being pantomime villains.
Lethargic and lacking sharpness and accuracy, only No 8 Robbie Diack maintained anything like European Cup form.
Conditions were just made for the big, physical Italians. It was very soft underfoot, and with rain hurtling down in gusts, making handling a real lottery at times, Zebre thrived.
The visitors sought to play for position; Luciano Orquera's first kick found Craig Gilroy, who was pinged for holding on, and the fly-half drove a low penalty between the posts.
The only bright point at this juncture was the enthusiasm of the returning Paddy Wallace, playing his first match for nine months.
In the 10th minute Ulster almost allowed Zebre to steal away for a try when James McKinney had a kick charged down and Orquera darted clear up to the '22' before he was clattered -- he had to leave the field with a head wound.
Even Ulster's solid scrum was being put under pressure and when Callum Black buckled in the 14th minute, replacement kicker Tommaso Iannone floated over his side's second penalty from 40 metres.
Ulster finally started to find a little cohesion at the start of the second quarter and one great series of picks and drives almost brought the opening try, only for Gilroy to spill the ball as he was hit by two tacklers. Michael Allen nearly squeezed over close to the line but he too lost possession.
The Italians were frustrating Ulster with their spoiling tactics and slowing ruck ball. Skipper Johann Muller tried to take the law into his own hands by climbing over a black jersey and was lucky only to receive a telling off.
Ulster, though, finally blasted ahead in the 30th minute thanks to a brilliant solo effort by Payne. A line-out ball was taken off the top by Muller and McKinney delivered a long ball to Payne just over the halfway line.
The Kiwi-born centre burst through one tackle and with the ball swaying in both hands, twice showed defenders a deft look to the right before striding in under the posts.
Ruan Pienaar converted as Ulster went in at half-time 7-6 ahead.
They played the game in Zebre's half on the restart and were rewarded with a straightforward penalty in the 47th minute to make it 10-6
Ulster were nearly caught cold on the hour when Leonardo Sarto broke clear for a mazy 50-metre run, but a second Pienaar penalty in the 72nd minute gave Ulster breathing space to ease fears of Zebre producing a smash and grab.
Ulster -- R Andrew; C Gilroy (P Nelson 77), J Payne, P Wallace (D McIlwaine 64), M Allen; J McKinney (M Heaney 61), R Pienaar; C Black (T Court 56), N Annett (R Herring 56), R Lutton (A Macklin 76); J Muller (capt), L Stevenson (N McCombe, 76); M McComish, S Doyle, R Diack (C Joyce 76).
Zebre -- G Palazzani; L Sarto (B Leonard 79), T Iannone, R Quartaroli, D Berryman; L Orquera (K Ratuvou 13), A Chillon; A de Marchi (M Aguero 52), A Manici (T D'Apice 26), D Chistolini; Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolini (M van Vuren 56); F Cristiano, F Ferranni (E Caffini 62), N Cattina.
Ref -- N Hennessy (Wales).