How Ulster's forward surge earned bonus point win at Dragons despite high card count
Dragons 15 Ulster 28
Four tries despite three yellow cards saw Ulster return from Newport with a full haul of points to boost their PRO14 play-off hopes.
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With Benetton and Scarlets having already won over the weekend, the pressure was on the province before kick-off against Dragons with weather conditions in Wales ensuring that free-flowing rugby would be thin on the heavy ground.
But Dan McFarland's forwards powered their way to victory, lifting the side back up into the third and final play-off spot.
Jordi Murphy, Marty Moore, John Cooney and Alan O'Connor grabbed the tries, the latter coming six minutes from time with both Louis Ludik and Rob Lyttle in the bin.
Both sides lost key figures to injury before kick-off - Ulster's Sean Reidy pulling out on Saturday evening while Dragons lost Lions hooker Richard Hibbard in the warm-up - and it was the hosts who struck first to take what was their only lead of the game.
Kieran Treadwell was pinged for not rolling away and, in the swirling wind, Josh Lewis' kick stayed straight and true.
Having made light of the conditions there, Dragons tried to do likewise from their next lineout, throwing between the middle and the tail when camped deep in their own territory.
Alan O'Connor got up to challenge and Ulster mover through double-digit phases before Clive Ross spilled the ball forward five metres out.
Having to be so sure in what they were doing had the unintended consequence of making Ulster seem too deliberate, but the Dragons could not tackle forever.
After two lengthy spells of relentless pressure, it was Jordi Murphy who slid over the line with the help of a few team-mates. Dragons missed one from the tee before Ulster were denied what would have been the best try of their season only by a last-ditch tackle from Jordan Williams on Robert Baloucoune in the corner. Cooney, Eric O'Sullivan and Nick Timoney had all been involved in the delightful passage that followed a Murphy turnover.
A yellow card for Darren Cave - coming thanks to an early tackle - put Ulster on the back foot just before the turn.
Taine Basham's turnover had forced Cave into the early tackle and, while he was superb for the Dragons, Ulster's own forwards were contributing well with Murphy, O'Sullivan, Marty Moore, Kieran Treadwell and Nick Timoney all fairly prominent.
Rather than having to weather the storm of Cave's absence, Ulster remained on the front-foot and, just before their outside centre returned to the fray, Moore barged his way over after a good carry from Stuart McCloskey off the line-out.
While Dragons had brought some experience off the bench at half-time - out-half Jason Tovey and released Welsh international Leon Brown - it has the hosts dominating proceedings now the wind was at their back.
Just three minutes after Moore scored, it was Ulster's backs in on the act, Baloucoune punishing a terrible kick and linking well with Louis Ludik to set Cooney away and under the posts.
Rhodhri Williams wayward boot was his last action of the game, the Dragons calling on Travis Knoyle immediately after Cooney converted his own score.
With the game seemingly in hand, the next half hour was to be all about securing the bonus point.
What followed was instead a wholly curious passage of play. For 20 minutes neither side seemed willing to seize control of the game, Dragons blundering a number of lineouts while Ulster's failure to exit all too often giving the Welsh region the ball straight back.
Indeed when Rob Lyttle and Louis Ludik were shown yellow cards in quick succession, both for deliberate knock-ons and the latter bri nging with it a penalty try, it see med as if momentum may swing so dramatically in favour of the hosts that an unlikely comeback seemed possible.
Instead, Ulster got what they needed but only after their 13 men moved the ball 60 metres and through 27 phases before Alan O'Connor muscled his way over. In a game where the forwards had rolled up their sleeves, aided by another physical Stuart McCloskey outing, it was a fitting end where the ball was controlled in the tight for a matter of minutes.
Dragons grabbed another try through Basham, their best player on the day, but it was a case of job already done for Ulster.
When the province are next in action - home to Southern Kings in 19 days- a Six Nations champion will have been crowned and there will be just seven days until the Champions Cup quarter-finals.
Away from the gaze focussed upon those two glamorous competitions, Ulster have done their PRO14 prospects no harm at all.
Dragons: J Williams, D Howells, A Warren, J Sage, H Amos, J Lewis, R Williams, B Harris, R Lawrence, L Fairbrother, J Davies, M Screech, H Taylor, T Basham, H Keddie (capt).
Replacements: E Shipp, J Reynolds, L Brown (for Fairbrother, 40), M Williams (for Davies, 76), L Greggains (for Keddie, 18), T Knoyle (for R Williams, 58), J Tovey (for Lewis, 40), T Morgan (for Amos, 54)
Ulster: L Ludik; R Baloucoune, D Cave, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore, A O'Connor (captain), K Treadwell, C Ross, J Murphy, N Timoney.
Replacements: A Warwick (for O'Sullivan, 63), J Andrew (for Herring, 68), W Herbst (for Moore, 52), I Nagle (for O'Connor, 76), M Rea (for Ross, 63), D Shanahan (for Cooney, 55), J Hume (for Cave, 62), P Nelson (for Burns, 78)
Referee: S Barry
Man of the match: E O'Sullivan.