Ulster leave it late to see off Connacht
Facing the prospect of three away trips on the bounce in the Magners League, Ulster coach Mark McCall had labelled last night's visit of Connacht to Ravenhill as one of the most significant of their title defence.
Given that second-placed Llanelli had earlier in the afternoon lost away at the Ospreys, McCall's assessment took on even more resonance for the leaders.
And even though Ulster struggled for large parts to find their rhythm or patterns, and were undone by problems at the line-out, there was a feeling of job-done last night as McCall's side stretched their lead at the top of the table to seven points.
Llanelli still have two games in hand, but it is now a year since Ulster lost their last game in this tournament at Ravenhill and the champions will hope to repeat their 10-match unbeaten run in the second half of the season which took them to the title last year.
Ulster clearly struggled from having made five changes from the side that defeated London Irish in the Heineken Cup, and it was not until the second half, when McCall sprung his bench, that the home side were able to find their feet.
Tommy Bowe raced over for a brace of tries and his sizzling break provided the attacking platform for Neil Best to rumble over for a try five minute from time to secure the victory.
Connacht, who had taken the lead with a Paul Warwick drop-goal and had hit back following Bowe's first touchdown with a well-worked try by inspirational captain John Fogarty from a rolling maul, never gave up the ghost and were unlucky not to emerge with a losing bonus point for their sterling efforts.
The first half was forgettable save for Connacht's determination not to be overawed by playing in front of a Ravenhill crowd of 12,143.
Their captain John Fogarty had a superb game, while Mark McHugh mixed up his game intelligently and Keith Mathews provided a cutting edge.
In contrast Ulster's line-out looked shaky early on, which prevented them from getting into positions where they could turn the pressure up on Connacht and Paul Steinmetz and Kevin Maggs were forced to turn in an impressive defensive display throughout.
If the home support expected Paul Warwick's fourth minute drop-goal to awaken Ulster from a festive slumber they were disappointed.
It took a more direct approach from Kevin Maggs to win the penalty which allowed David Humphreys to level the scores in the 22nd minute but Ulster could not kick on.
Instead Connacht were left to wonder how Mathews managed to spill a pass from Paul Warwick with the line at his mercy.
Then in the dying moments a break by Andrew Trimble provided Ulster with some rare attacking ball and a side-stepping surge by Steinmetz almost took the New Zealander over.
But even though he was able to recycle the ball under the posts, Ulster's lack of precision, which had troubled them all half, saw their attack breakdown to leave the sides locked a 3-3 at the break.
McCall sprung his bench for the start of the second period, with Paddy Wallace coming on for Humphreys in a pre-ordained switch while Bryan Young and Rory Best replaced Justin Fitzpatrick and Paul Shields in the front row.
And the home side immediately upped their tempo with Wallace displaying some deft touches.
His beautifully-timed pop pass sent Neil Best crashing into the Connacht 22 and when the ball was recycled Wallace sent a floated pass to Tommy Bowe who raced over in the corner for the game's opening try in the 48th minute. Wallace added the conversion.
Connacht's response was key to the contest and the visitors delivered a perfect riposte, as hooker John Fogarty rumbled over following a drive from a line-out on the 22-metre line. Mark McHugh's conversion levelled the scores.
But back came Ulster.
Isaac Boss, with almost his first touch as a replacement for Kieran Campbell, made a blindside break and another perfectly-timed release by Wallace put Bowe into space and the big winger showed tremendous finishing power to race over in the corner for his second touchdown in the 58th minute.
A Gavin Williams' break into the Ulster 22 from a pop pass by McHugh tested the home defence to the full but they were up to the task as the game began to open up.
Another break by Paul Warwick maintained the pressure in a purple patch for Connacht but Ulster regained control with another sizzling break by Bowe which provided the platform for Neil Best to be driven over from a line-out in the 75th minute to make sure of the victory.
Ulster: B Cunningham; M Bartholomeusz, K Maggs, P Steinmetz, A Trimble; D Humphreys, K Campbell; J Fitzpatrick, P Shields, S Best, J Harrison, T Barker, N Best, N McMillan, R Wilson.
Subs: T Bowe for Cunningham (31); P Wallace for Humphreys (40) R Best for Shields (42), B Young for Fitzpatrick (42), M McCullough for Barker (54), I Boss for Campbell (57), K Dawson for McMillan (68)
Connacht: D Riordan; D Yapp, P Warwick, G Williams, K Matthews; M McHugh, C Keane; B Wilkinson, J Fogarty, B Sturgess, D Gannon, A Farley, J Muldoon, R Ofisa, C Rigney.
Subs: M Lacey for Rigney (62), J Hearty for Riordan (62), A Flavin (79)
Referee: A Rolland (IRFU)