Ulster may have crashed to their third successive defeat at Ravenhill and a fourth in pool two of the Heineken Cup but their spirited display against a powerful Neath/Swansea Ospreys side at least gave hope for their Magners League campaign.
The 10,000-strong home support, many wearing Santa hats handed out free by the Ulster Branch before the kick-off to improve sagging spirits, went home in better mood as Steve Williams' side delivered a much-improved display in this season of woe for the province.
Having conceded seven tries to the visitors seven days earlier in Swansea, Ulster saw their line breached only once last night, with Justin Marshall racing over from a line-out move in an enthralling second half.
Ultimately three penalties by James Hook, who also slotted the conversion, allied to Marshall's touchdown, was enough to keep Ulster at bay.
Leading 8-6 at the interval thanks to a superb Simon Danielli try and Niall O'Connor penalty, the home side made the Ospreys work hard to hang on to their win despite playing for 20 minutes with 14 men following yellow cards to Ryan Caldwell and Carlo Del Fava, with Tommy Bowe and Danielli breaching the line on a number of occasions.
Ulster began in confident mood, with Tommy Bowe running the ball out of his 22 to good effect and after swift hands, Neil Best made further headway up the narrow side. But a penalty for obstruction allowed the Ospreys to clear the danger.
And Ospreys out-half James Hook quickly made up for two loose kicks with a searing counter-attack which put Shane Williams into space up the touchline, forcing a good tackle from Bryn Cunningham.
Niall O'Connor, making his first start in the Heineken Cup, was able to keep Ulster edging forward with his excellent kicking game, but with the home line-out wobbling, they were unable to maintain the pressure.
And after a sniping break by Justin Marshall and a good angle by Filo Tiatia, the Ospreys took the lead with a penalty by Hook in the 12th minute.
The lead was doubled a minute later after Mark Taylor had intercepted Tommy Bowe's pass inside the Ulster half and Hook made no mistake with the subsequent penalty.
Given their fragile state, it was vital that Ulster responded quickly to prevent the game slipping away from them and it came via a penalty from O'Connor from the restart, prompting a renewed effort from the home side.But the Ospreys responded impressively, launching a successive wave of counter-attacks, looking for offloads and mis-matches and making a number of breaches into the Ulster defence.
The visitors came close to a try when Shane Williams' clever chip enabled Hook to hack the ball over the line and Ulster were forced to concede a five-metre scrum.
But when the Ospreys conceded a penalty at the put-in however Ulster were able to sweep back up the pitch, and as their resistance grew ever more stout, it looked increasingly like an acid moment in the half.
And so it proved when Ulster launched a daring attack of their own to snatch the lead at half-time. Scotland wing Simon Danielli hit a great line of a slightly-forward looking pass by Bowe and rounded Ospreys full-back Lee Byrne with ease to touch down in the 37th minute for the game's opening try.
The last kick of the half saw Hook miss with a long-range penalty attempt but the Ospreys began the second period as they had done the first, with a tempo to stretch Ulster to the full.
But a lack of ball protection gifted Ulster four vital turnovers to halt the Ospreys' attempt to turn their head of steam into points.
A couple of storming breaks by Marty Holah looked to have proved decisive only for Marshall's long pass to be knocked forward just before Lee Byrne went over in the corner.
But it seemed only a matter of time before the pressure would tell and it did when Marshall sliced through a split Ulster line-out for a clinical try in the 56th minute, with Hook adding the simple conversion.
The Ospreys out-half was on target again with his third penalty moments later after more ferocious attacking play which culminated with Ryan Caldwell being shown a yellow card.
Ironically, with a man down, Ulster ploughed their way back into the game, again frustrating the Ospreys' attempts to push on for the bonus point.
No sooner than Ulster were restored to 15 men than Carlo Del Fava, a substitute for Justin Harrison, was shown a yellow card for pulling the hair of Ospreys prop Adam Jones.
But, with Bowe leading the charge superbly and Danielli looking dangerous on the break, Ulster continued to press, showing great spirit in the face of adversity. The Ospreys did come close adding to their try total at the death, but without a bonus point, the visitors know their win may not be enough.
ULSTER: B Cunningham; T Bowe, A Trimble, R Dewey, S Danielli; N O'Connor (P Wallace 56), K Campbell (I Boss 56); B Young, R Best, D Fitzpatrick (T Court 73), J Harrison (C Del Fava 67), R Caldwell, N Best, K Dawson (D Pollock 62), M McCullough.
NEATH/SWANSEA OSPREYS: L Byrne; N Walker, M Taylor, S Parker, S Williams; J Hook, J Marshall (M Phillips 73); D Jones (P James 74), H Bennett (R Hibbard 74), A Jones, A W Jones, I Evans, J Thomas, M Holah, F Tiatia.
Referee: M Changleng (SRU).