Ulster missed their chance to establish themselves in the top two of the Pro12, as a fiery and physical Dragons side claimed a 26-22 win at Rodney Parade on Sunday.
The Welshmen were outstanding and dominated an Ulster side that has been on top form in recent weeks.
Tries from Rhys Buckley, Jonathan Evans and Carl Meyer provided the inspiration for a superb Dragons win, while the twin boots of Tom Prydie and Dorian Jones also contributed with three penalties and a conversion.
The Newport side was full of energy and ambition, as they destroyed Ulster’s attacking impetus and led throughout most of this compelling game.
The Irishmen replied with a brace from fullback Craig Gilroy and a late try from debutant Ross Adair, but they weren’t at the races today as the Dragons outworked and outplayed them.
The Belfast side will hope that this reverse hasn’t cost them a home semi-final, but this contest was all about the brilliant Dragons and a quite wonderful forward performance.
Ulster opened the Dragons up in the first couple of minutes, and winger Michael Allen had a good chance to create a try, but lacked the composure to make it count.
The visitors sought to apply pressure early on by aiming bombs at the Dragons’ back three, but the home side proved excellent in the air; particularly the impressive wing Prydie.
It was the Welshmen who opened the scoring on 13 minutes against the run of play, as Prydie slotted a well-taken penalty.
Although the Irish visitors dominated the opening quarter of the game, they failed to create many clear cut opportunities and their profligacy allowed the Dragons to feel their way into the contest.
The visitors won plenty of ball in this period, but their play looked overly programmed and lacked incision.
The hosts made some inroads after their initial sluggishness, with Nick Crosswell getting them over the gain line.
But they didn’t make the most of their possession, and it was the Irishmen that struck next.
On the 22 minute mark, late call-up Rory Scholes cut a nice angle off an Ian Humphreys pass and used the space well to put the supporting Gilroy over for the opening try.
Pienaar missed the conversion, though, leaving his side slightly ahead at 3-5.
But the lead was short-lived and the visitors conceded a penalty on 26 minutes that Prydie converted from the touchline to edge the Dragons ahead.
Ulster responded well, but lacked the execution to finish off their opportunities.
The Dragons continued to create openings of their own, and Prydie had another long range effort fall short a couple of minutes before the break.
The wing had a chance to atone right on the half-time whistle, but unfortunately missed again. The half finished with the Dragons protecting their slender lead, but Ulster were well in it.
The second half began scrappily, but it was Ulster who started better and Pienaar had a great chance to re-establish their lead after Boris Stankovich was penalised for collapsing a scrum.
The South African scrum-half missed the kick, however. Fortunately for the visitors, Pienaar was gifted another chance two minutes later and this time he made no mistake.
Ulster couldn’t protect their lead, though, and the Irishmen conceded another penalty on 51 minutes, and fly-half Jones nailed the kick this time. The Dragons consolidated their advantage thereafter, and with Ulster down to 14 men with Callum Black in the sin bin; Buckley got over from a powerful driving maul.
Jones missed the conversion, but all the momentum was now with the Welshmen. The game looked up for Ulster on 62 minutes as Jonathan Evans powered through some lax defending to score. Jones converted to make it 21-8.
Then came the Ulster comeback. On 71 minutes Darren Cave took the ball at pace in the Dragons’ 22, and released Gilroy over for Ulster’s second try.
Pienaar converted to reduce the deficit to 21-15.
But the Dragons responded immediately, and established field position in the Ulster half. Once there, the hosts benefitted from some poor Ulster tacking, and Carl Meyer was able to squeeze in at the corner.
John Lacey referred to the TMO, and Derek Bevan allowed the try to stand.
The conversion was missed by Jones, but it scarcely mattered. Adair scored a consolation at the end with his first try for his province, but it was too little too late for a deflated Ulster as the Dragons held on to secure a thoroughly deserved win.
Tries: Buckley, Evans, Meyer
Cons: D Jones
Pens: Prydie 2, D Jones
Tries: Gilroy 2, Adair
Cons: Pienaar 2
Yellow card: Black
Dragons: 15 Geraint Rhys Jones, 14 Tom Prydie, 13 Jack Dixon, 12 Ashley Smith, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Dorian Jones, 9 Jonathan Evans, 8 Nick Crosswell, 7 James Benjamin, 6 James Thomas, 5 Cory Hill, 4 Andrew Coombs, 3 Brok Harris, 2 T.Rhys Thomas (c), 1 Boris Stankovich
Replacements: 16 Rhys Buckley, 17 Phil Price, 18 Lloyd Fairbrother, 19 Matthew Screech, 20 Scott Matthews, 21 Luc Jones, 22 Carl Meyer, 23 Ashton Hewitt.
Ulster: 15 Craig Gilroy, 14 Rory Scholes, 13 Darren Cave (c), 12 Mike Stanley, 11 Michael Allen, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Clive Ross, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Dan Tuohy, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Calum Black.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Sam Arnold, 23 Ross Adair
Referee: John Lacey