Ulster racked up their tenth straight RaboDirect PRO12 win of the season on Sunday after beating the second-placed Scarlets 19-12 in Llanelli.
With the next phase of their European adventure looming, Mark Anscombe cleverly rotated his panel of players; resting some key personnel.
It was the Scarlets who began the game in superior fashion, with their forwards hitting the rucks with superb intensity. The quality of their early exploits earned the Welshmen a penalty on two minutes, but Aled Thomas was unsuccessful with the resultant kick. Similarly, Paddy Jackson was unable to capitalise on fine work by his pack when he missed a penalty in the sixth minute.
Ulster were beginning to find their rhythm, however, and Jackson secured his team's first points with a penalty on nine minutes to make it 3-0 to the league leaders.
Although decidedly scrappy, the forward contest was compelling, with the breakdown in particular being fiercely contested. Ulster's openside Robbie Diack was making a considerable impact in the contact area, but his contribution notwithstanding, quality ball was hard to come by.
Scarlets fly-half Thomas levelled the contest on 18 minutes after Ulster had been carelessly caught offside. The Scarlets' pack was starting to assert itself, and the home team's mauling game was particularly effective. Their efficiency in this area is surely testament to the influence of former Irish blindside, Simon Easterby, who is emerging as a prodigious young coach.
It was Ulster, however, who looked the more dangerous with ball in hand, and their opening try had certain inevitability to it. Irish winger, Andrew Trimble fortuitously caught a loose ball on 28 minutes and cantered unopposed to the line. It was not his most aesthetically pleasing try, but this team has mastered the art of winning ugly in recent weeks. It was also supremely satisfying for Trimble on a personal level, the Coleraine man being pressurised for his place by the precocious Craig Gilroy.
But yet again Ulster's not so secret weapon was their devastating scrum. Callum Black was particularly effective on the loosehead side and, in so doing, has given his coach a selection headache ahead of next week's seminal game against Northampton Saints. Ulster's scrummaging prowess earned them another penalty on 32 minutes, and the outstanding Jackson effortlessly converted.
Although Ulster were beginning to dominate their battle hardened opponents, their play lacked the fluidity and potency that had been so evident in the early part of the season. It was equally apparent that the league's pace setters had one eye on next weekend's challenge.
The second half was a much more closely contested affair, with the home team increasing their intensity and work rate from their first half efforts. The menace of their new approach was tangible, causing headaches for Ulster's vaunted defence.
It was the mercurial Jackson who opened the scoring on 42 minutes when he successfully converted a penalty. But then came the Scarlets' comeback. Thomas clawed back Ulster's lead on 52 minutes to make it 16-9 to the Ulstermen.
Ulster extended the lead further on 56 minutes to earn a ten point cushion. Their cause was not aided by the sin-binning of Dan Tuohy and that decision galvanised the Scarlets, who frantically laid siege to Ulster's half. But the visitors' defensive line held firm.
Thomas did earn a well deserved losing bonus point with the last kick of the game, but for Ulster another vital win had been secured and they now have a five day turnaround before their biggest game of the season.
Pen: Thomas 4
Pen: Jackson 4
Yellow card: Tuohy (64 mins)
Scarlets: 15 Dan Newton, 14 Kristian Phillips, 13 Gareth Maule, 12 Gareth Owen, 11 Andy Fenby, 10 Aled Thomas, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Kieran Murphy, 7 Johnathan Edwards (c), 6 George Earle, 5 Richard Kelly, 4 Johan Snyman, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Emyr Phillips, 1 Phil John.
Replacements 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Shaun Hopkins, 18 Deacon Manu, 19 Tomas Vallejos, 20 Craig Price, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Adam Warren, 23 Nick Reynolds.
Ulster: 15 Peter Nelson, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Roger Wilson , 7 Robbie Diack, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Nigel McComb, 4 Johann Muller (c), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Tom Court, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Dan Tuohy, 20 Mike McComish, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 Niall O'Connor, 23 Tommy Bowe.
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Assistant referees: James Jones (Wales), Chris Williams (Wales)
Television match official: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)
By Rory McGimpsey