Ulster left in last chance saloon after Cardiff draw
Ulster 24 Cardiff 24
Ulster's play-off hopes may not have been dealt a fatal blow against Cardiff Blues in Kingspan Stadium last night but their campaign is certainly teetering on the brink.
A 24-24 draw, and an end to the province's six game winning streak, has left no margin for error over the course of the season's final three games, and with a daunting fixture list that includes games against both Leinster and Munster, they may well need help from elsewhere if they are to maintain a run of four straight years in the PRO12's play-offs.
Against a side who had little to play for after a disappointing European exit last week, Ulster - and their visitors - managed three tries and a penalty with the hosts having to come from behind four times.
While Paddy Jackson, who was also perfect off the tee, and Luke Marshall crossed the whitewash either side of a penalty try, there was an undeniable deflation at the final whistle at the failure to net another victory.
Cardiff had the better of the opening exchanges and, after Rory Best was pinged on the deck, it was left to Gareth Anscombe, son of former Ulster head coach Mark, who kicked them into a deserved lead.
If there was any doubt about the Welsh region's motivation coming into the contest, such notions had quickly been dispelled.
Despite superior breakdown work creating a rapid tempo, their hosts however quickly answered.
After Craig Gilroy and Blaine Scully had clashed in the air, Ulster had the advantage but Jared Payne saw an opportunity out wide with Charles Piutau showing his pace to round Alex Cuthbert.
The All Black was stopped only by a high tackle but, alert as ever, Ruan Pienaar dinked a kick through for Jackson and the out-half showed a deft touch with the boot to flick the ball up and cross the line.
Unfazed, Cardiff were still successfully keeping Ulster at arms length and when Les Kiss's side did make what was just their second foray into opposition territory, a swift counter attack saw the men from the Welsh capital re-take the lead.
There was plenty to make the side in white wince come video review time with a number of missed tackles in the build-up but the end result was prospective Lions captain Sam Warburton crashing over from close range.
While Cardiff lost a second player to injury - George Earle followed Blaine Scully down the tunnel - Ulster would come roaring back again in what was a back and forth opening.
With a very kickable penalty, Best, taking on the role of skipper again with both Rob Herring and Andrew Trimble on the bench, boldly went for the corner and was rewarded when Cardiff infringements saw referee Ian Davies wheeling his way under the posts to give a penalty try.
In a development that will have worried Warren Gatland, Warburton was the latest player to depart the scene early, meaning a quicker than anticipated return to the Kingspan turf for old favourite Nick Williams.
After a big hand, and a handshake for former long-time team-mate Pienaar on the way past, the bulldozing number 8 took his place in the scrum and set about making a few of his trademark rumbles.
While Payne emerged for the second-half after taking a knock just before the turn, he was replaced soon after play resumed with Danny Wilson's men still the side looking more likely to score next.
Their centre pairing of Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo had been prominent throughout and it was the latter who did indeed give Cardiff their third lead of the game, from quick ball off the top of the lineout, although Henderson believed he was harshly penalised after ripping the ball out in the tackle.
With half an hour to go, Ulster would have to come again.
A penalty from Jackson tied the scores but it would be a short reprieve with missed tackles again the issue when Lee-Lo danced through for his second of the half.
With a draw unlikely to do much good to their chances given what is down the track, Ulster were running out of time.
With just over 10 minutes to go, they got back to level footing when a fantastic break from Sean Reidy marched the side upfield and allowed Luke Marshall to dart through, although this time it was Cardiff's turn to slip off their tackles.
There were chances late on, but none that could force the required final score.
With Scarlets hosting Treviso in west Wales this afternoon, a five-pointer that would knock Ulster from the league's play-off spots seems the most likely of scenarios.
When the players reconvene next week, therefore, their top four destiny could well be out of their own hands.
Ulster: J Payne; C Gilroy, L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Best (capt), W Herbst; K Treadwell, A O'Connor; I Henderson, S Reidy, R Wilson. Replacements: R Herring (for Best, 65), C Black (for Warwick, 75), R Ah You (for Herbst, 65), R Diack (for O'Connor, 62), N Timoney (for Wilson, 62), P Marshall, J Stockdale (for Payne, 42), A Trimble (for Gilroy, 56)
Cardiff: R Williams; A Cuthbert, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, B Scully; G Anscombe, L Williams; G Jenkins (capt), M Rees, T Filise; G Earle, J Hoeata; E Jenkins, S Warburton. J Navidi. Replacements: K Myhill, C Domachowski, K Assiratti (for Filise, 40), J Down (for Earle, 26), N Williams (for Warburton, 30), T Williams, S Shingler, M Morgan (for Scully, 11)
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU)