Ulster defeated their hosts Edinburgh 20-17 at Murrayfield despite centre Stuart McCloskey being shown a straight red card.
Tries from Ruan Pienaar and Darren Cave were supplemented by a fine kicking effort from the South African scrum-half, who landed two penalties as well as converting both tries.
Edinburgh scored a try of their own through Phil Burleigh, but were hampered by an erratic kicking display from Tom Heathcote who landed four penalties, but missed a plethora of others.
McCloskey’s sending off in the second half will be a key talking point from an ultra-physical game, and indiscipline almost cost the Irishmen the victory as they suffered a late sin-binning in parallel with the red card.
In the end, the experience of the Belfast side proved decisive and the Ravenhill men did just enough to seal a vital win that bolsters their play-off ambitions.
The game began in frenetic fashion, with the early exchanges dominated by aerial bombardment. The Irish visitors enjoyed the majority of possession in the first five minutes, but their efforts were hampered by inaccuracy – the Scottish hosts securing first blood here.
A sweeping move after nine minutes saw the Murrayfield men recycle quick ball, ending with Burleigh getting over in the right hand corner for a fine counter-attacking try. Heathcote missed the conversion, but the momentum was now firmly with the home side.
Ulster responded well, however. The visitors patiently went through the phases in the Edinburgh half, trying to tease out an opening.
The hosts’ defence was initially impregnable, but on 14 minutes Ulster sneaked into the Edinburgh 22. Nick Williams then picked and drove from a scrum, but was held up short. The ball was recycled quickly to Iain Henderson who was denied a few yards from the line. From there, Pienaar dived over, and converted his own effort.
Heathcote had a good chance to restore Edinburgh’s lead, but his penalty fell short. The pivot redeemed himself two minutes later though, when he nailed another penalty from a similar position.
The game was fairly nip and tuck, but the Irishmen will have been appalled at their indiscipline. Edinburgh, for their part, were organised and structured, and dominant at the breakdown, with Neil Cochrane looking especially dangerous.
The hosts would have been well ahead had it not been for the profligacy of their fly-half, who missed another penalty attempt on 23 minutes.
Ulster were looking ragged and conceding a worrying amount of penalties. The hosts extended their lead on 30 minutes when Heathcote slotted his second kick after Henderson was pinged for coming in at the side, making it 11-7,
With half-time approaching, Edinburgh were in the ascendancy, but Pienaar reduced the gap to a point on 35 minutes with a well-struck penalty. Much to Ulster’s chagrin, though, they gifted three points to their opponents a minute later when Williams was penalised for not releasing. Not much between the teams at half-time, then, but Edinburgh will have been happier.
Ulster had the greater sense of urgency at the start of the second half, and established good field-position – their pressure paying dividends on 49 minutes as Piennar landed another penalty to reduce the gap to 14-13.
Less than two minutes later, the visitors struck again as Henderson offloaded to Cave who was on his shoulder to touch down. Pienaar converted to give Ulster a six-point lead.
Edinburgh had a chance to reduce the deficit to three points a couple of minutes later, but Heathcote’s jitters continued as he missed yet another penalty. Ulster were slowly gaining dominance in the game, but their cause was handicapped on 58 minutes as McCloskey was sent off.
The incident looked innocuous enough on the first viewing, but replays revealed that the Ulster centre had dangerously upended Hamish Watson at a ruck. Leighton Hodges referred the matter to the TMO, and they decided to banish McCloskey to the sidelines.
Heathcote compounded Ulster’s misery on 63 minutes as he nailed a penalty to reduce the arrears to three. The fly-half had another chance to level the game five minutes later, but he missed the admittedly difficult attempt.
Ulster were in disarray by this stage, but were just about clinging on. Their rear guard effort was hampered even more when lock Franco van der Merwe was sent to the bin for infringing at a lineout.
It was backs-to-the-wall stuff thereafter for a beleaguered 13-man Ulster, but to their credit they kept their composure well. Despite Edinburgh’s frantic efforts, the Irishmen held on to secure a vital four points. In the circumstances, it was a pretty remarkable effort.
Pens: Heathcote 4
Tries: Pienaar, Cave
Cons: Pienaar 2
Pens: Pienaar 2
Yellow Card: Van der Merwe
Red Card: McCloskey
Edinburgh: 15 Jack Cuthbert, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Sam Beard, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Tom Heathcote, 9 Grayson Hart, 8 Mike Coman, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 Roddy Grant, 5 Ben Toolis, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 WP Nel, 2 Neil Cochrane, 1 Rory Sutherland
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Grant Shiells, 18 John Andress, 19 Ollie Atkins, 20 Hugh Blake, 21 A N Other, 22 Jade Te Rure, 23 Andries Strauss
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Michael Allen, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Mike Comish, 6 Roger Wilson (c), 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Calum Black
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Clive Ross, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Luke Marshall, 23 Peter Nelson.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (WRU)
Assistant Referees: Sam Grove-White, Mike Adamson (both SRU)
TMO: David Changleng (SRU)