Ulster kept in touch with the PRO12 pace-setters after they beat Connacht 27-20 with a bonus-point try at the Sportsground in Galway on Saturday.
A brace from Irish winger Tommy Bowe put the Ulstermen in the driving seat, with Louis Ludik, and Craig Gilroy also contributing tries, Ruan Pienaar converted one on an poor day off the tee.
This was a superbly entertaining game and both teams showed an abundance of attacking ambition. The game seemed done and dusted once Ulster had established a 17-0 lead, but with European qualification on the line, Connacht responded strongly with tries from Matt Healey and Tiernan O’Halloran.
Indeed such was the ferocity of their splendid comeback, the Galway men nearly sneaked it at the death. Although the western province will be extremely disappointed with only their second home loss of the season, they will take heart from a losing bonus-point that could yet prove crucial.
Ulster, meanwhile, will be thoroughly delighted not only with this superb win, but a bonus-point of their own that takes them another step closer to the promised land of the play-offs.
Following a protracted dispute over the toss, it was Ulster that started better, controlling possession in Connacht territory early on. Ulster's strong opening forced Connacht to ship tackles in midfield, and this pressure resulted in Ludik scampering over for the opening try on four minutes.
The visitors had secured quick ball in the home 22, and from there Pienaar whipped the ball out to Paddy Jackson, who in turn put full-back Ludik over in the corner. Pienaar missed the conversion, but the Belfast side were happy enough with a 5-0 advantage.
It was all Ulster therefore, as the Galway men struggled to achieve dominance at the breakdown. The hosts then conceded a kickable penalty on eleven minutes when lock Aly Muldowney illegally tackled Ulster openside Chris Henry. Unfortunately for the northern province, however, Pienaar's kick drifted wide of the posts.
The hosts began to accrue some possession thereafter, with big ball carriers like John Muldoon and George Naoupu leading the charge. And the men in green thought they had sneaked a try on 20 minutes when Bundee Aki seemed to have got a hand on the ball when Pienaar was trying to clear Ulster lines at a ruck. Sadly for the men in green, though, the TMO decreed that it was the Ulster scrum-half who applied downward pressure first.
Although the contest was very attrition based for much of the first half, there was no shortage of ambition from both teams, and they certainly played with admirable width. The gaps failed to emerge for a long time, though, as the defences remained ascendant. Ulster were shading the contest, though, and it was the visitors that made the breakthrough on 32 minutes.
The northerners secured quick ball in the home 22, and their speed of passing put the Connacht defence under severe pressure. Jackson spun the ball out to Bowe on the wing, and the Irish winger had no difficulty touching down with only big Quinn Roux was covering. Piennar missed the conversion, but the momentum was now undeniably with Ulster.
And their advantage was copper fastened further on 35 minutes when fellow winger Gilroy took the ball at pace and powered over in the left hand corner. Pienaar converted this time to earn his side a 17-0 lead. By half-time, the northern side was in a commanding position, but alas many of Connacht's problems were self-inflicted as their defensive line was breached too easily.
Connacht had a lot of work to do at the beginning of the second period then, but they made the perfect start, scoring in the first five minutes. The hosts strung a few phases together in the opposition half, and Ulster's defence held them initially.
But winger Healy spotted a gap and powered over on 45 minutes by evading a lacklustre challenge from Chris Henry. Miah Nikora converted to reduce the gap to 17-7.
And the momentum continued for the Galway side on 51 minutes as Nikora curled over a difficult penalty to bring Connacht within seven points.
But Ulster responded well, and re-established field position in the home 22. Thus on 57 minutes more quick Ulster ball saw the Connacht defence stretched, allowing Bowe to get over for his second try and bag the bonus-point. Pienaar missed the extras, but Ulster now had some precious breathing space.
Connacht were now struggling, but they showed a laudable tenacity to get back into the game. On 60 minutes replacement Carty clawed back some of the lead with a well-taken penalty.
Ulster's win was sealed on 64 minutes, though, as skipper Best scored at the bottom of a trademark rolling maul. Piennar missed the conversion, but it was now a long way back for the hosts.
To their credit, Connacht came strongly again as they built pressure in the Ulster half. And on 72 minutes they gave themselves a lifeline as full-back O'Halloran finished well in the corner to score another try. Carty converted from the tightest of angles to bring it back to 27-20.
The last five minutes provided wonderful entertainment as Connacht chased a victory that had once seemed so elusive. The men in green were quite brilliant as they threw the ball around with abandon. In one breathtaking passage, the hosts went the full length of the pitch will ball in hand and very early got the try they so richly deserved, but Danie Poolman failed to hold Robbie Henshaw's offload with the line at his mercy.
Ulster held on then to celebrate a fantastic derby win that could mean so much in the context of their season.
Tries: Healy, O'Halloran
Con: Nikora, Carty
Pen: Nikora, Carty
Tries: Ludik, Bowe 2, Gilroy, Best
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O'Halloran, 14 Danie Poolman, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Miah Nikora, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 George Naoupu, 7 Eoghan Masterson, 6 John Muldoon (c), 5 Aly Muldowney, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Rodney Ah You, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 Ronan Loughney, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 John Cooney, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Darragh Leader.
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Darren Cave, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Dan Tuohy, 3 Wiahahn Herbst, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Clive Ross, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Stuart McCloskey.
Referee: Nigel Owens
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, John Carvill
TMO: Jude Quinn
By Rory McGimpsey