Cardiff Blues withstood a late Ulster fightback to record an excellent 28-23 PRO12 victory at the Arms Park on Saturday.
A try for the Munster-bound Robin Copeland, combined with a perfect kicking display by the magnificent Gareth Davies proved the difference in a see-saw clash.
The visitors responded through the boot of Irish international Paddy Jackson, but were unable to create much throughout the course of this game. Although the Irishmen came within an inch of snatching victory, and did succeed in securing a bonus point, they will be very unhappy with a performance that threatens to scupper their play-off ambitions.
This was a fine win for the Blues, but from an Ulster perspective, won't have provided the ideal preparation for next week's seismic encounter with Premiership kingpins, Saracens.
It was Cardiff that made the busier start, running hard lines and using the full width of their artificial pitch. But the visitors' defence soon affected a turnover, and a routine backline move on two minutes saw Darren Cave sweep through a meek Blues' defence to score.
Jackson failed to add the extra points, however to leave it 0-5. Ulster settled into their patterns thereafter, and looked fairly composed on the ball in the opening ten minutes. But the hosts withstood the early onslaught well, and proved quite durable in defence. Thus Davies narrowed the gap to two points on 13 minutes when he slotted a penalty.
Given the current plight of the hosts, Ulster will be disappointed not to have created more in the opening quarter. Although both sides showed a willingness to run the ball, the first half was tarnished by basic errors; particularly from the Irish club.
Davies edged his side into the lead on 25 minutes with a sweetly struck kick to make it 6-5. It was the least the Blues deserved following a prolonged period of Ulster indiscipline. The visitors were eventually deservedly punished for their repeated transgressions when Dan Tuohy was sin-binned on 29 minutes. Davies nailed the resulting kick to make it 9-5 to the Welshmen.
Cardiff's fly-half added another three points on 32 minutes following a devastating home maul that rumbled for approximately 40 metres. The hosts were now 12-5 to the good. And Copeland compounded the Irish club's misery on 35 minutes when he finished off a marvellous breakaway try. Davies converted effortlessly to make it 19-5 to the Blues.
The fly-half continued his imperious kicking performance on 38 minutes to increase the lead to an incredible 17 points. All in all, it was a splendid half for the hosts. The one-sided nature of the contest will certainly not have been in Ulster's script with next week's Heineken Cup quarter-final in mind.
The Irishmen, therefore, started the second period determined to edge their way back into the contest. Jackson started the comeback when he reduced the gap to 14 by slotting a penalty on 43 minutes to make it 22-8. The Irish fly-half chipped further away at the arrears on 47 minutes by landing another penalty.
There was certainly a greater sense of urgency from the visitors at the start of the second half, albeit with their performance still lacking in accuracy. Centre Luke Marshall seemed to have got over the line for the Irishmen on 54 minutes, but the TMO ruled out the effort. Jackson mitigated this side's disappointment, however, a minute later to make it 22-14 to the Welsh club.
The Ulstermen were now on the cusp of an unlikely comeback. It wasn't that Cardiff were playing particularly poorly at this stage, but the Irish side had noticeably upped their intensity from an awful first half. But the hosts dug in well, and refused to let their opponents gain any real ascendancy in the game. Davies rewarded his team for their efforts when he landed another kick to restore a 9-point advantage for the Blues.
Jackson cancelled that effort out, though, on 71-minutes when he kicked another penalty to get his side within losing bonus point range. The Ulster ten remarkably narrowed the gap to two points three minutes later to bring his side within a whisker of a win they scarcely deserved.
Cardiff's resistance was certainly wilting by the last ten minutes, giving the hosts a window of opportunity to seal the win. But it was the majestic Davies who copper-fastened the Cardiff victory on 78 minutes when he struck another excellent penalty.
The visitors desperately tried to steal the spoils, but the Cardiff defence held firm. On this evidence, it is fair to say that Saracens won't be unduly worried about next week.
By Rory McGimpsey
Con: DaviesPen: Davies 6
Pens: Jackson 6
Yellow card: Tuohy
Cardiff: 15 Dan Fish, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Cory Allen, 12 Isaia Tuifua, 11 Chris Czekaj, 10 Gareth Davies, 9 Lewis Jones, 8 Robin Copeland 7 Josh Navidi, 6 Macauley Cook, 5 Filo Paulo, 4 Lou Reed, 3 Taufa'ao Filise, 2 Kristian Dacey, 1 Gethin Jenkins (c).
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Thomas Davies, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 James Down, 20 Ellis Jenkins, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Simon Humberstone, 23 Gavin Evans
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Michael Heaney, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chis Henry, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Dan Tuohy , 4 Johann Muller (c), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Tom Court
Replacements: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Ricky Lutton 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Sean Doyle, 22 Paul Marshall, 23 Craig Gilroy
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Ita)