Ulster saw off a spirited second-half fightback from Cardiff Blues as they picked up a vital 36-17 bonus-point win at Ravenhill in the PRO12 on Friday.
Tries from Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik (2) and Paul Marshall helped a resilient Ulster cement their place in the top two of the PRO12 standings.
Those hard earned tries were supplemented by four Ruan Pienaar penalties, and the South African scrum-half also contributed with a conversion, as did replacement Ian Humphreys.
The hosts led throughout this pulsating encounter, but Cardiff were hampered by a slow start and their quest wasn't helped by a worrying looking injury to Rhys Patchell early in the game. Nevertheless, the Blues hit back through tries from Alex Cuthbert and Tom Isaacs, both converted by Gareth Anscombe.
The second-half was a thrilling affair as a jittery Ulster allowed Cardiff to storm back into it. In the end, the visitors had too much to do to catch up and conceded a couple of late tries.
It was Ulster, therefore, who deservedly prevailed here with a fine win that does their ambition of securing a home play-off no harm at all.
The home side made the better opening, and dominated possession early on. The early initiative earned its reward on three minutes as Gilroy squeezed in at the corner after receiving from a long pass from Paddy Jackson. Pienaar converted to make it 7-0 to the Ravenhill men.
The game was quite fractured at this stage, as first Stuart Olding and then Patchell were sadly stretchered off with injury. Full-back Patchell was particularly unfortunate as he fell victim to a stray elbow from Ulster number eight Nick Williams. The challenge was certainly reckless and Williams was accordingly dispatched to the sin bin. Given how ugly the incident looked in the replay, he was lucky that Marius Mitrea didn't brandish a red card.
When the game restarted after the long stoppage, much of the attacking impetus was lost and it became quite scrappy. Ulster adapted better, though, and stretched their lead on 14 minutes as Pienaar slotted a superb penalty to make it 10-0.
And it wasn't long before Ulster scored again. The hosts set themselves up in the visiting 22, and following good work by Darren Cave and Jackson, Ludik was put over for the second try. Pienaar missed the resultant conversion, but the Belfast men were now 15-0 to the good, and dominant.
Cardiff needed to respond, and accumulated some possession of their own, with Lions wing Cuthbert making some powerful runs. But time and again the Blues were undone by handling errors, and surrendered the ball too cheaply to the Irishmen.
The hosts punished the Blues for their profligacy on 31 minutes when he nailed another penalty as Cardiff Blues were pinged for not rolling away.
The Blues managed to string phases together at the tail end of the half, but lacked the accuracy to get over the whitewash. As the teams trundled off for half-time, then, Ulster were in control, but not yet out of sight.
The second-half started with Ulster on top, and Pienaar duly extended the lead on 42 minutes to stretch the score to 21-0.
Cardiff Blues badly needed to get points on the board, and duly did so on 46 minutes as Anscombe landed a penalty after Callum Black was penalised for going off his feet. And a resurgent Blues struck again on the 52 minute mark as replacement Isaacs got over for a try following some pretty woeful Ulster defending. Anscombe converted the score to reduce the deficit to 21-10.
With the Blues regaining a foothold in the game, Ulster sent on Chris Henry to restore some direction and composure. It was the openside's first outing since his heart scare in November and he received a rapturous ovation.
But a rejuvenated Cardiff kept on coming, and scored again on 62 minutes as Cuthbert deservedly got over in the corner.
Ulster were rattled, if not quite panicked by the Cardiff resurgence, but earned some breathing space on 66 minutes as Pienaar landed another penalty to make it 24-17.
And the win was sealed in emphatic fashion as a beautifully weighted cross-field kick by replacement fly-half Humphreys put Ludik over for his second try. Humphreys missed the awkward conversion, but the win was secured before Marshall scampered over at the death to claim a bonus point that might prove crucial in the final reckoning.
Tries: Gilroy, Ludik 2, Marshall
Con: Pienaar, Humphreys
Pen: Pienaar 4
For Cardiff Blues:
Tries: Isaacs, Cuthbert
Con: Anscombe 2
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Darren Cave (c), 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Michael Allen, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Clive Ross, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Dan Tuohy, 3 Wiahahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Chris Henry, 21 Paul Marshall, 21 Ian Humphreys, 23 Rory Scholes.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Rhys Patchell, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Cory Allen, 12 Gavin Evans, 11 Lucas Amorosino, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Josh Navidi, 7 Ellis Jenkins, 6 Josh Turnbull, 5 Lou Reed, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees (c), 1 Sam Hobbs.
Replacements: 16 Kristian Dacey, 17 Taufa’ao Filise, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 Manoa Vosawai, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Gareth Davies, 23 Tom Isaacs.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant referees: Gary Conway (Ireland), Olly Hodges (Ireland)
Television match official: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)
By Rory McGimpsey