'We weren't accurate and the energy wasn't there' - Kiss
Zebre 27 Ulster 23
Ulster's winning run came to a surprising and sudden halt in Parma on Saturday with director of rugby Les Kiss admitting his side got exactly what they deserved against perennial strugglers Zebre.
Having won all four games before the trip to northern Italy, the early pace-setters in Conference B were expected to secure a routine win and carry their momentum into Friday's first inter-pro of the season against Connacht.
The hosts, now coached by former Irish international Michael Bradley, were themselves buoyed by a rare win against Southern Kings last week but, with the likes of Iain Henderson, Christian Leali'ifano, John Cooney and Jean Deysel brought back into Ulster's starting line-up, few were predicting Kiss's men would be suffering just a second defeat on Italian soil.
But, after the province coughed up nine turnovers to a determined Zebre defence, as well as missing almost a fifth of their tackles, the 27-23 win for an outfit whose future seemed uncertain at one point this summer was fully deserved.
Indeed, despite turning around 13-6 to the good after Andrew Trimble's first-half try, an abysmal second 40 left the visitors relieved that Darren Cave's last-gasp score at least earned a losing bonus to ensure it wasn't a wholly fruitless trip.
While Ulster did bristle at the decision to chalk off a Wiehahn Herbst try for an offence in the maul, and the officials were certainly lax when it came to pinging offside, had Ulster went on to win after that late non-score, the better side assuredly would have lost.
With try-scorers Mattia Bellini and Gio Licata especially prominent, Kiss acknowledged his side could not match the spirit and energy Zebre displayed while securing their first back-to-back wins since April.
"You get out of this game what you earn, and we didn't work hard enough to get what we wanted," he blasted.
"We just weren't accurate enough at the right times and the energy wasn't there.
"You have to take your hat off to Zebre. They were coming off the line hard and really putting pressure on our skill-sets and they profited from that. They were spirited and it's disappointing we didn't match that."
With Ulster having also struggled before ultimately holding off Treviso when they last visited Italy, as well as the newly-added Cheetahs winning their third in succession over the weekend, the Australian added that this may now be the reality in a PRO14 which has not been the two-tiered competition of haves and have-nots that it appeared in the first two weeks.
"That's the game now," he added. "This is the competition. We want to see these teams do well but not at our expense."
Ulster hope to have Marcell Coetzee and Lion Jared Payne back among their number for Friday's visit of Kieran Keane's out-of-sorts outfit, but this result, essentially sealed by Renato Giammarioli length-of-the-field intercept score in the 73rd minute, will provide a rude awakening ahead of a crucial month.
After the Westerners come to Kingspan this week, the province are in Champions Cup action with a visit from Wasps and a trip to La Rochelle.
And things don't get any easier when the PRO14 resumes at the end of this month with Leinster coming north to Belfast.
ZEBRE -M Minozzi; G Bisegni, T Boni (G Venditti 64), T Castello (c), M Bellini; C Canna, M Violi; A Lovotti (S Panico 40), O Fabiani (L Luus 67), D Chistolini (E Bello 63); D Sisi, G Biagi (L Krumov 49); G Licata, J Meyer, R Giammarioli (J Sarto 74).
ULSTER - C Piutau; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, L Ludik (R Lyttle 49); C Leali'ifano, J Cooney (D Shanahan 63); C Black (A Warwick 49), J Andrew, R Ah You (W Herbst 49); P Browne (K Treadwell 27), I Henderson; M Rea, S Reidy, J Deysel (N Timoney 54 (A McBurney 77)).
REF - Mike Adamson (SRU).