Tommy Bowe's late try sealed a 34-18 bonus-point victory for Ulster against Connacht in Galway on Friday.
Ulster marched on towards a home semi-final thanks to five tries from Andrew Trimble, Stuart Olding, Rory Best, Bowe and Jared Payne.
This was a splendidly entertaining Irish derby that was much closer than the scoreline suggests.
Although Ulster led throughout the encounter, Connacht were never less than competitive, and played superb rugby for much of the match. The men in green have emerged as a real force in this tournament, and Eric Elwood will bid farewell at the end of the season with his head held high. For Ulster, the win puts them firmly in the Pro12 box seat.
The game got off to a ferociously physical start, as the opening two minutes yielded a welcome penalty for the vastly experienced Connacht front row at the expense of Ulster loose-head Tom Court.
From the ensuing kick, Connacht established field position in the visitors' 22, permitting powerful number eight George Naoupu to canter over for the opening try of the evening. Unfortunately Dan Parks missed the subsequent conversion.
It was the hosts who had made the more productive opening, and the onus was very much on the league leaders to respond, therefore. On the 5-minute mark, Ulster full-back Jared Payne was taken out clumsily in the air. Pienaar was remiss with the ensuing penalty, however.
Ulster were now beginning to find some attacking impetus, and their efforts were rewarded on 8 minutes when Stuart Olding finished off some intricate rugby as Ulster's backs secured front foot ball.
The visitors's pre-eminence was extended 3 minutes later when Andrew Trimble touched down in the right hand corner following majestic counter-attacking rugby.
Ulster were now 12-5 ahead. The breakdown was being fiercely contested, with Connacht extremely proficient in the physical exchanges. The western province struck again on 17 minutes, when Fetu'u Vainkolo touched down in the corner following poor Ulster defence.
Parks converted to equalise the scoreline at 12-12. Connacht have not lost at the Sportsground all season and their formidability at the venue was very much in evidence. Parks restored Connacht's lead on 23 minutes, thereby establishing a 3-point cushion for his side.
Connacht were establishing a definite parity of performance, but Ruan Pienaar kept his adopted province in touch on 28 minutes to level the score. The away team emphatically regained the momentum on 31 minutes when captain Rory Best emerged at the bottom of a superb maul. Peinaar converted to make it 15-22.
The second half got off to a similarly frenetic start, with Ulster pressurising the Connacht 22. It was Ulster who secured a penalty on 46 minutes, and they opted for a five-metre scrum.
Nick Williams failed to control at the base, however. Connacht reduced the deficit to four on 48 minutes, when replacement Miah Nikora slotted a penalty. As Ulster gained some much needed territory, they were impeded by a tendency to concede penalties in the red zone.
Connacht, meanwhile, were achieving superiority in the contact area. It was Ulster who struck next, though, on 71 minutes, when Tommy Bowe finished off a barnstorming run by substitute flanker, Iain Henderson.
Payne secured try number five two minutes later, making it 18-34. Connacht's brilliant home run has come to an end, therefore, but it was Ulster who moved tantalisingly closer to a home semi-final.
Tries: Naoupu, Vainikolo
Pens: Parks, Nikora
Tries: Olding, Trimble, Best, Bowe, Payne
Cons: Pienaar 3
Connacht: 15 Robbie Henshaw, 14 Danie Poolman, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Brian Murphy, 11 Gavin Duffy (capt), 10 Dan Parks, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 George Naoupu, 7 John Muldoon, 6 Mick Kearney, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Michael Swift, 3 Ronan Loughney, 2 Adrian Flavin, 1 Brett Wilkinson.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Rodney Ah You, 18 JP Cooney, 19 Andrew Browne, 20 Mata Fifita, 21 Paul O'Donohoe, 22 Miah Nikora, 23 Fetu'u Vainikolo.
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Ricky Lutton, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 John Afoa, 19 Johann Muller, 20 Iain Henderson, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Michael Allen, 23 Peter Nelson.
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Leo Colgan (Ireland), Barrie O'Connell (Ireland)
TMO: Sean Flannery (Ireland)
Citing Commissioner: Eugene Ryan (Ireland)
by Rory McGimpsey