Battling Ulster are summit special
Ulster 17-15 NG Dragons
Deemed surplus to Irish requirements this week, Ulster were more than happy to have their star out-half on hand at the Kingspan Stadium last night as Paddy Jackson kicked the province to the top of the Pro12 table.
With Jackson the form number ten in Ireland this season, Ian Madigan was still preferred for Joe Schmidt's bench for the clash with Wales tomorrow and, back in the white of Ulster, drilled a 78th minute penalty to give Les Kiss' side a two-point win over Dragons on a night when it seemed little was set to go right.
Entering the contest knowing that any form of win in the rearranged fixture would take them top, Ulster trailed from start to almost finish in a game where Dragons were superb.
On as a half-time substitute and having already seen an earlier effort rebound off the bar, Jackson would be the hero however and ensure Ulster avoided dropping back-to-back home games in the league for the first time since 2010.
The win did come as some cost though as Stuart Olding and Peter Browne sustained suspected concussion during the game.
Olding appeared to be knocked out in the second half after a collision with Dragons full-back Carl Meyer, although he was able to walk off the pitch. The visitors started very much on the front foot and, while Ruan Pienaar's knock-on in the tackle temporarily stemmed the flow of an early attack, a scrum penalty against Ulster gave Angus O'Brien a straightforward kick to open the scoring.
The hosts' attempts to get back into the game were punctuated with a series of knock-ons with one such handling error producing the game's first try.
A pass that didn't go to hand allowed Ashton Hewitt to run into open field and a sparkling break saw him evade the tackles of Alan O'Connor, Robbie Diack and Louis Ludik.
Deep into Ulster territory, Dragons moved crossfield and a chip ahead by Carl Meyer was gathered by a sliding Adam Hughes for a great score.
When O'Brien nailed the testing conversion, Ulster were in a ten-point hole.
A quick response was denied when Sean Reidy was held up over the line and Stuart Olding was forced into touch but the wait for a try would not be long.
Having created Dragons score, Hewitt may well have winced when watching a replay of Ulster's opener.
When the ball was moved wide, Rob Herring put Sean Reidy charging up the sideline.
Bursting through the attempted tackle of the right wing, the flanker fended of the tackle of O'Brien to score his third try in as many games. Humphreys knocked over the conversion.
The out-half was over himself soon after only for Nigel Owens to call the move back for a prior infringement.
Half-time saw the reinforcements called upon with Stuart McCloskey and Jackson summoned from the replacements.
The re-jig saw Olding move to full-back in place of Louis Ludik. A fleet-footed break from the fit-again youngster provided the first excitement of the half but Ulster were unable to capitalise on the territory.
The third of the three big guns on the bench, Nick Williams, would be on just minutes after the break when Diack took a heavy hit in the tackle. Missed tackles would present Dragons with another opening and, having already provided one fine effort, they added another with full-back Meyer going over with Ulster complaining of crossing.
Owens was sure there had been no advantage gained and Dragons led by eight.
The Welsh whistler would be a more popular figure five minutes later when awarding the hosts a penalty try.
It came after a high tackle on Pienaar had saw the ball sent to the corner and Reidy looked set for a second score only for Dragons to halt the maul illegally.
Jackson's conversion reduced the arrears to a point and there would be ten minutes with a man advantage thanks to a yellow for Matthew Screech.
A second yellow was hot on the heels with a swinging arm from Ben White earning the flanker a spell in the bin.
The act would end the day of Pete Browne, and see Clive Ross move into the second row with John Andrew in at hooker and Herring shifted into seven.
Dragons put up huge resistance despite the numerical disadvantage and, even when Ulster thought they'd taken the lead through Roger Wilson, a lengthy TMO consultation saw another try chalked off, this time for McCloskey knock-on.
Kiss's side had yet another chance to take a first lead but Jackson's long-range penalty came back off the crossbar.
A second chance would come when Corry Hill was caught with his hands in the ruck, this time Jackson made no mistake.
Ulster: L Ludik; C Gilroy, D Cave, S Olding, J Stockdale; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; C Black, R Herring (c), R Lutton; A O'Connor, P Browne; R Diack, S Reidy, R Wilson.
Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 56) K McCall (for Black, 43), B Ross (for Lutton, 70), C Ross (for Reidy,53), N Williams (for Diack,43), P Marshall (for Olding,66), P Jackson (for Humphreys, 40), S McCloskey (for Ludik, 40)
Dragons: C Meyer; A Hewitt, A Hughes, A Warren, H Amos; A O'Brien, C Davies; P Price, E Dee, B Harris; M Screech, R Landman (c); B White, N Cudd, E Jackson.
Replacements: R Buckley, B Stankovich (for Price, 57), S Knight (for Harris 65), C Hill (for White, 67), J Benjamin (for Jackson, 33), S Pretorius, R Jones, N Scott
Man of match: Alan O'Connor