A 78th minute penalty from Paddy Jackson helped Ulster see off the Dragons on Friday, winning 17-15 to go top of the PRO12 table.
It was far from a perfect performance and for long periods the Irishmen played second fiddle to a tenacious and well organised Dragons side.
The Irish outfit was forced to come from behind as the Welsh region built up a half-time lead through an Adam Hughes try, converted by Angus O’Brien.
Sean Reidy subsequently pulled one back for Ulster, but when Carl Meyer scored for the visitors just after half-time, the Dragons were well in control of the contest.
Enter super sub Jackson, who landed a penalty and conversion to secure the narrowest of wins for the hosts. The Irish fly-half’s superb 77 minute kick proved the difference here, sending a relieved Ulster back to the summit of the table.
It wasn’t the prettiest performance and the Welsh side will count themselves extremely unfortunate not to pick up their first win in Belfast since 2008.
It was all the Dragons early on and O’Brien scored the first points for the Welsh outfit after only four minutes when he slotted a penalty when Ricky Lutton was penalised at scrum time.
And it was the Dragons who scored the first try on 16 minutes. Ulster conceded possession while in their own 22 and from there the Welsh side launched a mightily impressive counter-attack. Winger Ashton Hewitt charged up the right wing and beat several defenders before getting caught. The ball was then transferred between several pairs of hands before full-back Meyer deftly chipped in behind the Ulster defence for a grateful Hughes to pick up to score in the corner. It was a fine try and no less than the Welsh club deserved for clever use of possession. O’Brien converted to give the Dragons a 10-0 lead.
The hosts hit back well on 24 minutes, though. Skipper Rob Herring took the ball forward in the visitors’ 22, finding flanker Reidy on the left wing and the big open side powered through the Dragons’ defence to touch down. Humphreys converted to make it 10-7.
The game became a bit fractured after that, with both sides afflicted by handling errors and lapses in discipline. Despite plenty of effort being expended, neither side could make the breakthrough; as the half drew to a close there was still no sign of a creative spark to ignite the contest.
The second-half began with Ulster showing a greater degree of urgency. The home side was bolstered by the introduction of Jackson and Stuart McCloskey who had been released by Ireland.
But it was the Dragons who scored next when Meyer burst through on 46 minutes to score the second try. O’Brien missed the conversion, but there was now some daylight between the sides.
Ulster responded in the best possible way, though. The introduction of Nick Williams added some beef to the forward ranks and the big Kiwi made an immediate impact.
The hosts were awarded a penalty on 52 minutes and Herring chose to go to the corner. With the lineout safely secured, Ulster set up a textbook driving maul that seemed to have unstoppable momentum. The Dragons arrested the charge, but with the maul collapsing, Nigel Owens immediately put up his hand to signal a penalty try. Jackson converted to bring his side within a point at 15-14.
Ulster’s efforts were aided when Dragons blindside Ben White was sent to the sin bin for a high tackle. They made the numerical advantage count. The hosts went through the phases in the Dragons 22, and the Welsh side's defence did well to hold them out initially. The 14 men became stretched, though, on 63 minutes and Roger Wilson touched the ball down. Agonisingly for Ulster, TMO Kevin Beggs determined that McCloskey had knocked-on in the build-up.
Ulster had another excellent chance to reclaim the lead on 73 minutes, but Jackson’s penalty frustratingly hit the woodwork.
It was starting to look rather desperate for the hosts, but they got a final bite of the cherry on 77 minutes when the Dragons were penalised for hands in the ruck. It was a much harder chance for Jackson, but the Ulster fly-half made no mistake, coolly nailing the penalty to give his side a two point lead and with it, the win.
Tries: Reidy, Penalty
Con: Humphreys, Jackson
Tries: Hughes, Meyer
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Peter Browne, 4 Alan O'Connor, 3 Ricky Lutton, 2 Rob Herring (c), 1 Callum Black
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Kyle McCall, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Clive Ross, 20 Nick Williams, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Rory Scholes
Dragons: 15 Carl Meyer, 14 Ashton Hewitt, 13 Adam Hughes, 12 Adam Warren, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Angus O’Brien, 9 Charlie Davies, 8 Ed Jackson, 7 Nic Cudd, 6 Ben White, 5 Rynard Landman (c), 4 Matthew Screech, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Phil Price
Replacements: 16 Rhys Buckley, 17 Boris Stankovich, 18 Shaun Knight, 19 Cory Hill, 20 James Benjamin, 21 Sarel Pretorius, 22 Geraint Rhys Jones, 23 Nick Scott
Referee: Nigel Owens
Assistant referees: Nigel Correll, Shane Kierans
TMO: Kevin Beggs
by Rory McGimpsey