/ Rugby

Aironi 20-46 Ulster

Updated: Saturday, 17 Dec 2011 18:36

Ulster prop John Afoa carries the ball against Aironi
Ulster prop John Afoa carries the ball against Aironi

Ulster pressed home their Heineken Cup ambitions with a bonus-point victory over Aironi in Monza.

Brian McLaughlin's men scored six tries on their way to a well-merited win, which puts them in pole position at the top of Pool Four ahead of next month's crunch clashes at home against Leicester and away to Clermont Auvergne.

Andrew Trimble, Tom Court, Craig Gilroy and replacements Robbie Diack and Adam Macklin were all on the mark for the visitors, while a first-half penalty try added to Italian woes.

The quality of opposition notwithstanding, it was a strong performance by the Irish province, who dominated throughout.

They should have had a try after just four minutes but Trimble, having done the hard work to evade Aironi's wide defence, inexplicably lost control of the ball when attempting to ground it with his right hand.

The Ireland winger made amends just a minute later, however, showing brilliant hands on the crash ball to touch down under the posts. Ian Humphreys converted, and Ulster were already on their way.

Aironi have both the worst defensive and attack records in the competition this season, and they offered little to inspire the home support, other than the place kicking of Luciano Orquera.

He traded penalties with Humphreys to leave the score 10-3 in Ulster's favour midway through the half.

It was the forwards who took the plaudits for try number two, a penalty try awarded after a 15-metre rolling maul was dragged down just short of the hosts' line.

Humphreys again converted to make the lead 17-3.

Oddly, Humphreys then opted for another three-pointer with Aironi on the ropes after a touchline surge from man-of-the-match John Afoa had torn their defence asunder.

But there was little respite for the hapless Italians, and the third try duly arrived before the break, Court this time crossing the whitewash following a series of pick and drives. Humphreys was once again on the mark with the conversion.

Leading by 27-3, the challenge for Ulster was to maintain their intensity after the break, but it took them an age to regain their rhythm, Aironi finally playing with some conviction.

It was the Italians who struck first in the second period, the lively Sinoti Sinoti slipping in for a 56th-minute try after a period of sustained pressure, with Orquera adding the extras.

A game that was effectively dead at half-time burst into life when replacement Roberto Quartaroli sprinted home from 70 metres for Aironi's second try, narrowing the gap to 12 points with 20 minutes remaining.

With the travelling support becoming increasingly uncomfortable, Ulster finally woke up during the final quarter and Gilroy's try 10 minutes from time secured the bonus point - the province's second of these back-to-back fixtures.

Aironi replacement George Biagi scored a late consolation try. But Diack and Macklin both touched down to finish off a workmanlike performance for Ulster, whose only concern was a knee injury picked up by young replacement Paddy Jackson.

In the other match in Ulster’s pool, Leicester rescued their Heineken Cup campaign from the perils of possible pool stage elimination by staging a superb second-half fightback against French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne.

The Tigers, European champions in 2001 and 2002, appeared to have little chance of progressing from Pool Four when Clermont cruised into a nine-point interval lead at Welford Road.

But Leicester rapidly wiped out that deficit before Toby Flood's 62nd and 72nd-minute penalties secured the points and kept the Tigers on course for an 11th quarter-final appearance in 15 seasons of Heineken Cup rugby.