Familiar problems on show for Ulster in Dragons' thriller
Dragons 32-32 Ulster
Ulster's luck finally ran out in Newport last night as they banked three points from a game they should have won, could have lost, but ultimately drew against the Dragons in Rodney Parade.
In control of things and leading by 12 points with less than a quarter of an hour to go, this side's startling propensity for leaking tries was once again their undoing, as Dragons hit three quick-fire scores that turned the game on its head and had them leading by five with only seconds remaining.
Losing a game that should have been long since sewn up, to their credit the visitors were able to lift themselves from the canvas following the late sucker-punch to score through Christian Leali'ifano with the clock having turned red.
Despite the fresh legs of usual goal-kicker John Cooney now on the field, the Wallaby took on the responsibility for converting his own try, only to see his would-be winning kick drift agonisingly wide of the uprights.
Having lived dangerously against the PRO14's lesser lights in November, the province could hardly have expected to keep winning games when flirting so brazenly with disaster and, despite avoiding defeat, this was very much a case of two valuable league points spurned on a night when Edinburgh cut the gap to the final play-off spot in Conference B.
Having struggled at scrum time and in defence, that Ulster were in a position to throw away the win at all was a story in itself, one authored by the on-song Craig Gilroy who bagged a brace for his first scores of the year.
Dragons had started on the front foot but an early yellow card Jack Dixon, shown after a tip tackle on Louis Ludik, gave Ulster a penalty subsequently to be knocked over by Christian Leali'ifano, and 10 minutes up against 14 men.
Numerical advantages have been wasted all too often by the province of late - notably against Leinster and last week versus Treviso - but this time they made the opposition pay.
With 10 minutes on the clock, Craig Gilroy exploited a missed tackle from Aaron Wainwright to score his first try of the season with soft hands hooker John Andrew helping create the opening.
The scrum though, which had been one of the few positives last time out, was shaky early on, three free-kicks awarded against the visitors by Marius Mitrea making it tough to establish a platform.
And with Dragons' forwards taking care of their own basics in a much more effective manner, it was a commanding maul try, finished off by Matthew Screech, and converted by former Wales and Lions ten Gavin Henson, cut the deficit to a point.
With stand-in skipper Ollie Griffiths increasingly prominent, it was the flanker's burst upfield that saw Henson's second kick of the day edge them back in front.
All of a sudden there was only one team in the game.
With their loose forwards winning the back-row battle and giving 17-year-old scrum-half Dan Babos quick ball, Ulster's defence, their Achilles' heel all too often this season, was stretched.
Despite committing fewer numbers in the contact area, there was still all sorts of trouble for Les Kiss's defence when the ball was worked wide, and Dragons got in behind for a second score when Dixon poked the ball through for Ashton Hewitt to touchdown.
Ulster's forwards would soon make amends for their earlier errors.
A penalty try, when John Andrew was going over regardless, tied things up and, as half-time neared, Ulster will have hoped their shaky patch was over.
While they threatened another just before the turn, a loose pass forced the impressive Nick Timoney into a knock on and the teams were headed for the sheds.
Only minutes after play resumed, Ulster would storm back into the lead, clever play from Paul Marshall taking advantage of a lapse in Dragons concentration to stretch the ball across the whitewash after a big carry from Timoney.
Now firmly on top and showing an ability to move through phases, the bonus point try arrived in the 55th minute with Gilroy, who looked sharp after a frustrating season delayed by injury, shrugged off some fairly lacklustre tackling to score his second of the day.
With the forward replacements - Rory Best, Callum Black, Andy Warwick and Chris Henry were all sprung from the bench before the hour mark - giving Ulster a more solid look, it seemed as if the visitors were set for something that has been a rarity this season - a comfortable final quarter.
No such luck.
Here started the incredible end-game that featured five tries in 13 minutes, with a further crossing of the whitewash chalked off for good measure, and saw a 27-15 scoreline become 32-32.
It began with another mauled effort, an area where Ulster looked shaky all night.
Again unable to stop the attack at source, Liam Belcher was this time the man able to touch down.
The conversion was missed but Dragons were back within a score.
With Henson to the fore, he produced a magical effort that saw score of the night honours go to Angus O'Brien.
When finding space out wide once more, Hewitt's second of the night seemed sure to give the Dragons a morale-boosting win. But Ulster would pull off another late, late show, even if this time they didn't finish the job.
With a penalty advantage coming their way, a score that would have represented a hat-trick for Gilroy was chalked off but, as Ulster came central for the tap and go, when Leali'ifano wriggled his way over after good work from substitute Matt Dalton, he had actually made the kick easier on himself.
But having kicked the winning conversion from a similar position and in similar circumstances against Treviso exactly seven days prior, he just couldn't get them out of jail this time.
Dragons: A O'Brien, A Hewitt, A Warren, J Dixon, J Rosser, G Henson, D Babos, B Harris, L Belcher, L Fairbrother, J Davies, M Screech, A Wainwright, O Griffiths (captain), J Benjamin.
Replacements: E Shipp, G Ellis, S Hobbs (for Harris, 33), R Landman (for Screech, 58), B Roach (for Wainwright, 58), C Davies, A Robson, P Howard.
Ulster: C Piutau, C Gilroy, T Bowe, S McCloskey, L Ludik, C Lealiifano, P Marshall, S van der Merwe, J Andrew, R Kane, A O'Connor, K Treadwell, G Jones, S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: R Best (for Andrew, 51), C Black (for van der Merwe, 52), A Warwick (for Kane, 52), M Dalton (for Treadwell, 73), C Henry (for Jones, 56), J Cooney (for Marshall, 52), P Nelson, A Trimble (for Ludik, 71)