ULSTER 36 CARDIFF BLUES 17
Ulster secured a full haul of five match points and closed the gap at the top of the table to two points after eventually putting Cardiff to the sword in Belfast on Friday night.
Leaders Glasgow drew 34-all with Leinster in Dublin, both sides scoring four tries each to secure three match points which adds to the drama in the race for the play-offs.
It was a remarkable start for Ulster. Blues skipper, Matthew Rees knocked on Paddy Jackson’s kick-off and from there Ulster went through over 20 phases before the PRO12’s leading try score, Craig Gilroy went over for a try on three minutes.
Ruan Pienaar converted but the home support’s joy was hushed when Stuart Olding was stretchered off having picked up a right leg injury during the build-up to the try.
The centre had only just returned from injury.
Gareth Anscombe then failed to get the restart beyond the 10m line and Ulster were on the attack again, A lovely kick ahead by Darren Cave saw winger Mike Allen charge through byu he knocked the ball on attempting to catch it in the air as it bounced up.
Blues fullback Rhys Patchell was left strewn on the ground ahead of the scrum award - and he was stretchered off after receiving attention - during which Ulster No 8, Nick Williams was yellow carded.
Ulster had little to contend with during their numerical disadvantage and indeed went 10-0 ahead through a Pienaar penalty on 14 minutes.
Williams then returned from the bin on 17 minutes and a minute later Louis Ludik crossed for a try, Pienaaar pushing his conversion past the right pole but did add a penalty on 30 minutes for an 18-0 lead.
Cardiff kicked penalty awards to touch in search of a try and replacement Tom Issacs had a poential try ruled out by the TMO when Ulster went down to 14 men again when lock Franco van der Merwe was sinbinned after one infringement too many from the home side at ruck time.
Cardiff also delivered a masterclass in how to spurn four three man overlaps which saw them go in at the break trailing 18-0.
Pineaar extended the lead to 21-0, but the Blues started a bit of a comeback when outhalf Anscombe got his first points of the night with a penalty and then converted Issacs’ try after a great break from Lucas Amorosino. Anscombe added the extras and it was 21-10.
Henry received his huge welcome back to playing rom the appreciative crowd, but they were silenced a minute after the hour mark when Cuthbert went over for a try and Anscombe converted and there were four points in the game.
But a Pienaar penalty and a superb crosskick from replacement Ian Humphreys which picked man of the match Louis Ludik out for a try and then a massive burst by Iain Henderson saw him pop a pass to replacement Paul Marshall and the little terrier raced in under the posts for the bonus point try.
Ulster: L Ludik; C Gilroy, D Cave (capt), S Olding, M Allen; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Herring, W Herbst, D Tuohy, F Van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Ross, N Williams.
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, B Ross, R Diack, C Henry, P Marshall, I Humphreys, R Scholes.
Cardiff Blues: R Patchell, A Cuthbert, C Allen, G Evans, L Amorosino, G Anscombe, L Williams; S Hobbs, M Rees (captain), A Jones, J Hoeata, L Reed, J Turnbull, E Jenkins, J Navidi
Replacements: K Dacey, T Filise, S Andrews, M Cook, M Vosawai, T Knoyle, G Davies, T Isaacs
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR,)