Ulster marched to the top of the PRO12 standings on Friday with a dominant 31-5 victory over the Dragons at Ravenhill.
Following the season-defining reverse at the hands of Saracens last weekend, the encounter represented an opportunity for a demoralised Ulster to salvage their domestic season. For the lowly Dragons, meanwhile, the game signified a chance to regain some pride from what has been a disappointing campaign thus far. For the restored Tommy Bowe in particular, this was part of a last-gasp mission to secure a coveted place on the Lions' plane to Australia.
As it was, Ulster got off to the worst start imaginable. Paul Marshall badly misjudged a box kick in the first minute that went out on the full. From the ensuing line-out, the hosts conceded a penalty but Tom Prydie was off target with his kick.
The visitors' back row drove superbly around the fringes in the opening skirmishes, with Welsh international Toby Faletau particularly prominent. It was the visitors, assuredly, who made the better start.
Rookie Ulster tighthead Ricky Lutton, moreover, was under acute pressure from the Dragons' Aaron Coundley. As the half progressed, Pienaar began to get his backline moving, with the hosts displaying some crisp passing in midfield.
The South African fly-half also mixed his game up with some deft kicking. A combination of handling errors, and stoic Dragons' defence disrupted the hosts' continuity, though.
The game opened up on 23 minutes, however, when an incisive break from Marshall in the visiting 22 unleashed Bowe to score in the right-hand corner. Pienaar converted to give his side a 7-0 advantage.
Dragons impressive start dissipated further on 28 minutes when Sam Parry conceded a penalty for hands in the ruck. The concession proved even more costly when Dan Evans was subsequently yellow-carded for dissent. Pienaar duly added the three points.
The hosts made the hitherto impressive Dragons suffer further when Olding squeezed over on 34 minutes in the left, as the 14 men struggled to plug the gaps. Pienaar again converted. Darren Cave compounded the visitors' misery when he danced through to touch down on 37 minutes. Ulster were now 24-0 to the good.
Ulster commenced the second half in similar fashion, pummelling the Dragons 22 through the behemoth, Nick Williams. Their ascendancy was copper-fastened on 44 minutes, when Marshall evaded the Dragons cover to score. Pienaar nailed the conversion to make it 31-0.
Man-of-the-match Olding nearly jigged his way through on 52 minutes, but was whistled back for a knock on. With the Dragons replacing both props, Ulster's scrum was utterly dominant, and the visitors' pack began to look somewhat beleaguered.
Indeed it was only Ulster's own errors that prevented them from amassing a cricket score. Although the raft of substitutions undoubtedly disrupted the rhythm of the match, the Dragons' defence was immeasurably better in the second period.
Ulster continued to keep the Dragons pegged in their own half through the twin boots of Pienaar and Marshall.
But Dragons were not finished. Prydie finished off a neat passage on 68 minutes, following some terrific counter-attacking. But Ulster resolutely closed out the game.
Although his team's resistance will have heartened Dragons coach Edwards, this loss cements their place as second from bottom of the Pro12. For Ulster, this thoroughly decent victory propels them back to the league summit, and keeps the side on course for a home semi-final.
Tries: Bowe, Olding, Cave, Marshall
Cons: Pienaar 4
Yellow card: Evans
Ulster: 15 Peter Nelson, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Mike McComish, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Ricky Lutton, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Ali Birch, 21 Niall O'Connor, 22 Mike Allen, 23 Adam D'Arcy.
Dragons: 15 Tom Prydie, 14 Will Harries, 13 Pat Leach, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Ross Wardle, 10 Dan Evans, 9 Jonathan Evans, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Darren Waters, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Rob Sidoli, 4 Andrew Coombs (c), 3 Nathan Buck, 2 Sam Parry, 1 Aaron Coundley.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Gustafson, 17 Nathan Williams, 18 Dan Way, 19 Adam Jones, 20 Jevon Groves, 21 Wayne Evans, 22 Steffan Jones, 23 Andy Tuilagi.
Referee: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Paul Haycock (Ireland), Gary Conway (Ireland)
Television match official: Peter Ferguson (Ireland)
By Rory McGimpsey