Ulster power up bid for title success
Rodney Parade hoodoo is overcome as visitors claim sixth win on the spin to edge closer to place in the PRO12 play-offs
Ulster enjoyed a rare victory at Rodney Parade last night to keep their winning run rolling but had to overcome both a yellow and red card to beat Dragons by a score of 27-17.
The visitors travelled to their least happy of hunting grounds with a far superior team to their opponents but plenty of bitter memories from past visits to east Wales.
A bright start saw the province take the lead early through Craig Gilroy but, when the same man was shown a yellow card, Dragons struck back through Rynard Landman.
Matters seemed to be in hand when Jared Payne went over but the Welsh strugglers got off the mat yet again and Ulster had to endure a nervous finish when Rodney Ah You was shown a red card.
John Andrew's late score put some gloss on the grind as Ulster maintained their position in the PRO12's fourth and final play-off spot.
They did, however, lose some ground on the chasing pack as Scarlets secured a bonus-point win in Edinburgh but Director of Rugby Les Kiss was surely just relieved to see his side escape their bogey ground with victory.
On a pitch covered with more sand than grass, Ulster travelled with the majority of their international contingent back in harness but never really clicked into gear during a contest that always seemed set to be something of a slog.
So often boasting more talent on the team-sheet, the play-off chasers arrived having lost nine of 14 at Rodney Parade and it was not a game with much to alter Ulster opinions about visits to Newport.
With a back-row who troubled Ulster at the breakdown, and a pack who were physical in attack, it was again something of a wrestle.
All this despite Ulster leading after just seven minutes.
A clever kick over the top from Ruan Pienaar, who recognised Dragons Tom Prydie was out of position, produced a bouncing ball between Gilroy and Angus O'Brien, with fortune favouring the Ulsterman.
The winger still had plenty to do after getting boot to leather but he gathered well to crash over.
With Pienaar's conversion, Ulster had a perfect start.
As has happened all too often this season though, the quick-fire beginning was followed by a lacklustre middle.
Dragons retained the ball well - at one point racking up over 30 phases in attack - and while there wasn't much in the way of invention, Ulster were forced to defend stoutly.
One such effort saw Wiehahn Herbst forced off with injury - the South African was replaced by Ah You - and when Ulster did attack, they were undermined by errors.
But after O'Brien cut the gap with a penalty, Jared Payne burst upfield and kicked ahead to finally put some swing momentum back his side's way.
With Dragons pinged for holding on, Pienaar knocked over the kick to restore a seven point lead.
There was still time for the hosts to force a long-range penalty of their own, but the effort was wide with the last action before the turn.
An early break from Kieran Treadwell after play resumed threatened an upping of the tempo but again Ulster compounded error upon error to let their hosts off the hook.
And when Gilroy was controversially shown a yellow card, all bets were off.
With the extra man, Dragons wasted no time in levelling matters with Landman bulldozing his way over from the maul.
Rather than be forced onto the back foot though, the score meant it was time for the introduction of Paddy Jackson.
Having had such an assured start to the Six Nations, the out-half was surely keen to get into the action after getting limited minutes over the last month, and he immediately lifted his side.
Putting together a rare move with some attacking thrust, Pienaar, Olding and Payne combined well to send the international full-back haring across the gainline and then whitewash at pace for their second score.
They would lose Pienaar after a blow to the face though and matters were all knotted up again soon after when his replacement Paul Marshall was charged down by Ollie Griffiths.
The flanker, in the eyes of the referee if not Ulster, was able to apply the necessary downward pressure to be awarded the score.
Just when it looked like another day to forget in this old ground for Ulster, a penalty allowed Jackson to edge the visitors inches in front but the drama was far from finished.
With five minutes to go, Ah You turned a shoulder into Carl Meyer and, while it wasn't quite clear what the prop's intentions were, the referee had little doubt about showing a red card.
Seeing it out with 14, Henderson saved the day with a big line-out steal while substitute hooker Andrew mauled his way over for his second Ulster try, and second in as many games.
A six game winning streak and back-to-back rounds in the top four for the first time since October, but there will still be plenty to pore over before Cardiff in two weeks.
And play like last night against any of Ospreys, Munster and Leinster in the final three games, and those summer holidays may be starting sooner than we think.
DRAGONS: C Meyer, A Hughes, T Morgan, S Beard, T Prydie, A O'Brien, C Davies; S Hobbs, R Buckley, B Harris, N Crosswell, R Landman, O Griffiths, N Cudd, L Evans (c)
REPLACEMENTS: D Harris (for Buckley, 77), P Price (for Hobbs, 56), L Fairbrother (for B Harris, 69), M Screech, H Keddie (for Cudd, 62), S Pretorius (for C Davies, 64), D Jones (for Prydie, 77), A Warren (for Meyer, 77)
ULSTER: J Payne, C Gilroy, L Marshall, D Cave, C Piutau, S Olding, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Herring (c), W Herbst, K Treadwell, A O'Connor, I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy
REPLACEMENTS: J Andrew (for Herring, 74), C Black (for Warwick, 60), R Ah You (for Herbst, 21), R Diack (for Henry, 70), C Ross (for O'Connor, 59), P Marshall (for Pienaar, 65), P Jackson (for Cave, 49), J Stockdale (for Piutau, 77).
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)