Ulster 36-17 Cardiff Blues: Ulster dig deep for a crucial win over Cardiff Blues
Ulster 36-17 Cardiff Blues
It was helter-skelter stuff with drama aplenty but Ulster's strong finish, after their early second-half slump, got them maximum points and kept them in second with two points separating Neil Doak's men from leaders Glasgow Warriors.
And it was a special night, with Chris Henry's 20 minutes off the bench - his first game since last November's heart surgery - bringing the biggest cheer of the night.
After leading 21-0 early in the second half thanks to tries from the on-fire Craig Gilroy and Louis Ludik, the home side went off the boil and this after they had actually done well during the sin-binnings of Nick Williams and Franco van der Merwe.
But when it really mattered, namely after the hour mark when Cardiff closed to 21-17, Ulster found their way again to keep their play-off hopes heading in the right direction and stretching this season's winning league record at the Kingspan to all nine games played there this season.
However, the injuries to Stuart Olding and Ruan Pienaar may well be concerns.
After winning their own kick-off, Ulster put down a marker by taking possession through multiple phases before a skip pass from Paddy Jackson found Gilroy in space for his ninth PRO12 try of the campaign.
However, the sight of Olding receiving attention at the side of the pitch took a bit of the gloss off the score.
The game was then held up again after Rhys Patchell received attention before also being stretchered off with Nick Williams being shown yellow over the incident.
But even with 14-men Ulster scored next with Pienaar landing a 14th-minute penalty from near the touchline.
And three minutes later they had their second try. With Williams having just returned, Ulster launched a driving maul and after spinning it left, Ludik surged his way through to make the line.
Pienaar missed the extras but Ulster looked good at 15-0.
Then, on the half hour mark, Pienaar's second penalty took Ulster to 18-0 after the Blues were caught with hands in the ruck. A great lineout steal from Van der Merwe helped relieve the pressure from a lineout right on Ulster's line and afterwards Gareth Anscombe put another penalty into the corner.
With the Blues cranking up the pressure, Ludik put in a last-ditch tackle on Lucas Amorosino. This in turn saw Michael Allen then bring down Alex Cuthbert but Van der Merwe was sin-binned.
The visitors then messed up a great chance when Cuthbert threw a forward pass with a try looking bolted-on just before the half-time whistle.
After the break, again with a man down, Ulster struck next with Pienaar's third penalty making it 21-0. But the Blues then got off the ground through Anscombe - son of former Ulster coach Mark - with his 45th-minute strike.
Soon after, Amorosino weaved his way through and sub Tom Isaacs got over.
Anscombe converted and the Blues had cut Ulster's lead to 21-10. And after Ulster were turned over just under the Cardiff posts, a huge cheer greeted Henry's entrance.
It didn't manage to settle things and another attack saw Cuthbert cross with Anscombe's conversion of his 61st minute try making it 21-17.
Ulster needed to settle and Pienaar's fourth penalty, in the 65th minute, was just what was required though it was pretty much his last act as he shipped an arm injury.
Then, after Rory Scholes was close on the left, replacement Ian Humphreys put in a cross kick which was collected by Ludik to score his second.
It was unconverted but the home side then struck four minutes later to bag their bonus point through Paul Marshall. Humphreys converted and Ulster's recovery was complete.