Dragons v Ulster: Bonus point win for Ulster at Newport to keep PRO14 play-off chances on course
DRAGONS 15 ULSTER 28
Ulster returned to third place in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14 with a deserved bonus point win over Dragons.
Having scored three tries by the 49th minute and looking relatively comfortable, Ulster had to dig deep when they had Rob Lyttle and Louis Ludik both in the sin-bin from the 69th and 69th minutes.
However, they were to get their rewards five minutes from the end when captain Alan O'Connor went over for a try after a remarkable 27 phases.
The win saw Ulster return to third place after earlier results this weekend, importantly now a point behind second placed Benetton and four ahead of Scarlets.
A heavy pitch and a stiff breeze greeted the teams in Newport, with Dragons having that strong wind advantage in the first half.
Ulster made the early running, Stuart McCloskey, Eric O'Sullivan, Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy and John Cooney influential, but they failed to deliver an early score.
Dragons enjoyed their own little patches and took the lead on 15 minutes when outhalf Josh Lewis kicked a penalty from the Ulster 10m line.
It was all Ulster after that though as they came at the Dragons in phases. The first onslaught yielded nothing after a dropped ball by Clive Ross - although the Welsh side's defence had been impervious prior to that.
But Ulster were relentless and came again, 15 phases later Jordi Murphy going over from close range, Cooney converting and it was the Irish Province who hads a 7-3 lead after 24 minutes.
However, a cheap penalty gave away gave Lewis another good chance from 35m on 27 minutes, but he blasted the ball wide and Ulster had a let off.
Ulster came again, but Dragons managed to hold their line again and then backrow forward Taine Basham gathered a loose ball and broke out. As he looked for the pass to Lewis Ulster centre Darren Cave was just a little enthusiastic and tackled the Dragons outhalf without the ball, earning a 10-minute spell in the sin-bin from 36 minutes.
Dragons never really put Ulster under any serious threat for the closing minutes - indeed it was Ulster who retained the upper hand and deserved their interval advantage of four points.
The Welsh side came out with Jason Tovey in at outhalf for Lewis and put some early pressure on, but a huge clearance kick saw Robert Baloucoune chase down field and from corner Ulster found themselves in a strong attacking position.
A lineout and driving maul was halted, but from the next phase McCloskey drove close to the line, Cooney then popped the ball up to the charging prop Marty Moore and he went over for the try. Cooney converted for a 14-3 lead after 45 minutes - a real body blow to the Dragons with Cave still in the bin.
A poor kick from Dragons' Rhodri Williams was gathered by Baloucoune who rolled out of his tackle and sent the flying Louis Ludik away, he made space and popped inside to Cooney who went over for Ulster's third try on 49 minutes.
Cooney made it three from three from the tee and Ulster were beginning to settle in to the game well and on the search for a more than useful try scoring bonus.
Moore had picked up a knock scoring and Wiehahan Herbst came on in the front row for his first appearance in some time after injury, while Cooney was replaced by Dave Shanahan just before the hour mark.
Ulster still retained a lot of possession, but were making too many forced errors as they pressed to attempt to get that crucial fourth try that would give a precious away bonus point.
The Dragons then stole ball and Tovey threatened and had Ulster scrambling to defend.
Shanahan then had a shocker, three attempted kicks bouncing off his own players and the Dragons began to turn the screw, Rob Lyttle then foolishly tried to stop a high pass as the Dragons move and the Ulster winger went to the bin on 68 minutes.
Within a minute a move to the left from Dragons then saw Ludik stick a hand out and he joined Lyttle in the bin and to rub salt in Ulster's wounds, a penalty try was awarded bringing Dragons right into the game once again at 10-21.
Ulster could have crumbled instead in spite of having only 13 men on the pitch, they kept the ball well and showed great patience as they went through 27 phases before captain and lock Alan O'Connor crashed over the line for the bonus point securing try. Outhalf Billy Burns converted for a 28-10 lead after 74 minutes.
Dragons went right down the pitch and replacement Max Williams looked to have gone over for a try, but it was held up.
Then on another attack Basham got over for a try which Tovey failed to convert bringing them close to losing bonus point territory at 15-28 with Lyttle coming out of the bin.
But Ulster ground it out and were rewarded fully for a workmanlike performance, with prop Eric O'Sullivan named Guinness man of the match.