Catch 22 deals play-off blow
It was the result that neither side wanted and in reality it makes the likelihood of Ulster qualifying for the play-offs highly improbable.
The fact that the Welsh side had won only once in the course of their previous six Magners League visits to Belfast — and that was way back in 2004-05 — made Ulster favourites.
The hosts, chasing a fifth successive Ravenhill victory over the Dragons, were also boosted by the long-awaited return to action of Rory Best and energised by the realisation that, by winning, they could deal their guests’ aspirations of a top four finish a telling blow.
But they never quite managed to see off opponents who refused to roll over and who defended brilliantly.
The first-half of what Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin had called “a vital match” provided ample evidence of two sets of protagonists who had not played for a month. Handling mistakes were numerous and the penalty count ridiculously high in what was a hard-fought, but seldom pleasing to the eye encounter with only flashes of good rugby.
Ulster’s Ian Humphreys and Dragons’ Jason Tovey traded penalties which made it 6-6 at the start of the second quarter, the highlight of the first 20 minutes from the home side’s perspective having been their superiority in the scrum.
With Best between Bryan Young and BJ Botha, both of whom fronted up, the Ulster front row held sway.
Paddy Wallace showed real flashes of class, too, none more than in the 27th minute when he scored the half’s only try following a rapid right to left attack by Ulster off a poor attempted clearance by Dragons.
Humphreys missed the conversion, but Ulster were 11-6 to the good and seemingly strengthening their grip.
On the half-hour a third Humphreys penalty opened up an eight-point gap and he promptly made it 17-6. That was a double whammy, for Dragons’ centre Rhodri Gomer Davies was sin-binned for foul play leading to that penalty award and facing 14 men Ulster had a chance to make it count before the interval.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Tovey replied with his third penalty of the night and then Best was given 10 minutes in the bin for stamping in his bid to retrieve the ball and take a quick line-out.
Tovey punished that, too, to leave it 17-12 to at half-time.
Nor, at the start of the second-half, did things go any better. Dragons quickly equalised when hooker Patrick Palmer scored five minutes after the restart and Tovey’s addition of the extras gave them the lead for the first time in the match.
That demanded a response and Ulster delivered one with Darren Cave and the always dangerous Wallace in perfect harmony to create space, impressive young full-back Jamie Smith flicking the ball on delightfully and Simon Danielli providing the finish to a magnificent move.
The resultant 22-19 lead lasted only a couple of minutes, however, with Tovey dropping a goal to
take his tally with the boot to 55 points in three matches.
Ulster had chances in the closing stages, but they continued to make mistakes and concede penalties at moments when they needed cool heads.
A Humphreys drop goal just failed but that served only to fire Ulster afresh. Replacements Ian Whitten, Timoci Nagusa and Ryan Caldwell joined Wallace in testing the resolution of the guests’ outstanding defence, which never faltered in the face of an incessant barrage in a ferocious finale.
A costly night for Ulster’s play-off hopes.
ULSTER: Smith; Trimble, Cave, Wallace, Danielli; Humphreys, Boss; Young, Best, Botha; O’Sullivan, Tuohy; Anderson, Pollock, Henry (captain). Replacements: Brady, Fitzpatrick, Caldwell, Diack, Porter, Whitten, Nagusa.
DRAGONS: Thomas; Harries, Riley, Gomer Davies, Brew; Tovey, Evans; Gustafson, S Jones, Palmer; Sidoli, Charteris (captain); Lydiate, Thomas, Webb. Replacements: Willis, Castle, A Jones, Harris, Watkins, Arlidge, Leadbetter.
Referee: Peter Allan (Scotland).