Ulster made the perfect start to their Heineken Cup campaign after banking five points in a 41-17 win over Castres.
Another night of high drama at Ravenhill culminated in the most unlikely of finishes.
While the scoreline suggests an emphatic victory, this compelling match told a different story. The night had begun with the disappointing news that Ulster would start their Heineken Cup campaign without Nick Williams or their talisman, Stephen Ferris. Suddenly their European opener had taken on a much more arduous complexion.
The French visitors will have been encouraged by their start. The hosts were penalised when a poor clearance kick from Paul Marshall was followed a powerful Castres' scrum. Teulet successfully added the three points.
Ulster's response was immediate. The home pack marched into the opposition 22 and, in the ensuing onslaught, the Frenchmen were caught offside. Jackson successfully landed his kick to level the scoreline.
Last year's beaten finalists had begun to find their rhythm. Ulster's backs started to play with the dynamism that has been the hallmark of their performances in recent weeks. A poor Castres' kick was swept up by Jared Payne who went on an electric run, before getting the ball away for Andrew Trimble to score in the corner. Jackson successfully converted from the most acute of angles.
The visitors responded with determination and were rewarded with a penalty on ten minutes. Bernard missed the resulting kick, however.
Ulster then upped the tempo, using their three-quarter line to devastating effect. The home side were awarded another penalty on 15 minutes, following a series of incisive runs. Again the boot of Jackson proved deadly accurate, making it 13-3.
By this stage, Ulster were looking dangerous, the fluidity of their game testament to the manner in which Mark Anscombe has inculcated the team with southern hemisphere skill levels.
Trimble was unlucky not to add to the tally, having been penalised for holding on in the Castres' 22. But Paul Marshall did extend the lead on 27 minutes, with Jackson taking the score to 20.
But Castres weren't finished. Their forwards rallied and forced their way into the Ulster 22. A series of drives ended with Marc Andreu taking a cross field kick to score. Teulet added the two points. Fittingly it was the home side that ended the half stronger, with Jackson slotting a penalty on 35.
The second half commenced with Ulster hungry to achieve the bonus point. That ambition took a step closer on 42 minutes, when Marshall burrowed over from close range. Jackson missed the conversion.
Shortly thereafter, Ulster spurned the chance to go to the corner and added another three points. At that stage, the fourth try looked a mere formality.
But Castres fought back. Marcel Garvey scored on 52 minutes after sustained pressure by his forwards. Teulet converted to make the score 31-17.
Ulster made their task much more difficult when prop Tom Court was sin-binned on 57 minutes. The decision seemed to galvanise the 14 men, however, and Jackson added another penalty on 61 minutes.
Ulster's quest for the fourth try was impeded by a conservative game plan. Captain Johann Muller repeatedly turned down the chance to go to the corner, preferring to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
The substitution of Tommy Bowe seemed to disrupt their impetus further as the chase for the fourth try became increasingly desperate. The home team kicked to the corner on 77 minutes, but gave away a penalty with the line at their mercy. Castres' forwards defended stoutly, and it appeared as if Ulster were destined to rue their missed chances. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. Deep into injury time, a poor Casters' kick gifted the ball to Ruan Pienaar who sliced through the Castres' cover to score. The elusive bonus-point had been achieved, sending Ravenhill into raptures.
Tries: P Marshall 2, Pienaar, Trimble
Cons: Jackson 3
Pens: Jackson 5
Tries: Andreu, Garvey
Cons: Teulet 2
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Stephen Ferris, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johan Muller (c), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Mike McComish, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Luke Marshall, 23 Craig Gilroy.
Castres: 15 Romain Teulet, 14 Marcel Garvey, 13 Seremaia Bai, 12 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 11 Marc Andreu, 10 Pierre Bernard, 9 Thierry Lacrampe, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Yannick Caballero, 6 Piula Faasalele, 5 Rodrigo Capo Ortega, 4 Matthias Rolland, 3 MichaÃ«l Coetzee, 2 Mathieu Bonello, 1 Yannick Forestier.
Replacements: 16 Marc-Antoine Rallier, 17 GrÃ©gory Marmoiton, 18 MihaÃ¯ta Lazar, 19 Iosefa Tekori, 20 Antonie Claassen, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Paul Bonnefond, 23 Thomas Sanchou.
Referee: Andrew Small
By Rory McGimpsey