Ulster had to settle for a losing bonus point this afternoon at Rodney Parade, as a disciplined Newport-Gwent Dragons side battled their way to victory despite a brace of tries from Craig Gilroy and a late score from debutant Ross Adair.
Both Adair and his fellow newcomer Sam Arnold impressed as second-half backline replacements for Ulster, but a high penalty count and the Dragons’ never-say-die attitude proved the visitors’ undoing, as they fell to their fifth defeat of the season which leaves them in joint-second place in the Pro12 with Munster on 53 points.
Samoan international Mike Stanley made his first start in one of three personnel changes enforced by suspensions and injury following last weekend’s victory over the Scarlets at the Kingspan Stadium.
With Luke Marshall unavailable for five weeks after being adjudged guilty of kicking Scarlets wing Michael Tagicakibau, Stanley – ostensibly signed on a short-term contract to provide cover at out-half – lined up at inside centre alongside Darren Cave.
Cave wore the captain’s armband for the very first time Ulster’s in the absence of Roger Wilson, banned for one week for striking an opponent during the 25 – 20 victory, and replaced in the back row by Ian Henderson. Finally, Rory Scholes enjoyed a rare start on the wing with Louis Ludik sidelined due to injury.
Elsewhere, Ulster lined up with Gilroy at full-back, Michael Allen on the left wing, and the half-back partnership of Ian Humphreys and Ruan Pienaar. Upfront, Callum Black, Rob Herring and Wiehahn Herbst all continued in the front row, with Dan Tuohy and Franco van der Merwe in the engine room, Clive Ross partnering Henderson at flanker, and Nick Williams at Number Eight.
In bright South Wales sunshine, a solid start from the Dragons saw winger Tom Prydie kick over a 13th-minute penalty before two fine bursts from full-back by Gilroy got Ulster back into the hosts’ territory. Then a well-engineered lineout drive created the space for a diagonal run from Scholes, who picked out Gilroy just inside the ‘22’ for a typically agile finish in the corner.
The Ulster lead was short-lived, however, as soon after Pienaar had screwed his conversion attempt well wide, Prydie stepped up to slot over his second kick on 26 minutes. Dogged tackling on half-way from the Dragons kept several potential Ulster attacks under wraps around the 30-minute mark, until Allen managed to burrow his way through in a promising raid which eventually broke down with a knock-on from Tuohy.
Ulster continued to press as half-time approached, but the Dragons’ staunch resistance continued, and the visitors were fortunate to run off at the break only a single point adrift, as two Prydie penalty attempts, the first from inside his own half and the second from the Ulster 10-metre line, sailed wide.
Half-Time Score Dragons 6 Ulster 5
Accurate positional kicking from Humphreys early in the second half kept the Dragons under pressure in their own half, and a collapsed scrum on the tighthead side paved the way for another Pienaar penalty attempt on 44 minutes, but again the kick veered off-target.
The scrum-half made no such mistake three minutes later as his short-range penalty took him past the 500-point mark in Pro12 rugby, but Williams’ failure to roll away sufficiently quickly for referee Dudley Phillips’ liking presented Dorian Jones with a kick of his own moments later, expertly dispatched by the out-half to re-establish a slender home lead.
Ulster’s task got all the more difficult on 54 minutes as Black was sent to the sinbin at the culmination of a series of team infringements, and the Dragons’ driving maul from the resulting lineout saw replacement hooker Rhys Buckley dive over for the try.
Jones’ conversion missed, but it mattered little seven minutes later when scrum-half Jonathan Evans scampered his way through three or four tackles as he picked up from the back of a ruck for the second home try, this time converted by Jones.
The Ulster fightback began on 69 minutes, as replacement Paul Marshall supplied Cave as the ball popped out the back of a 20-metre scrum, and the skipper found Gilroy for his second try, converted by Pienaar.
The Dragons wasted little time in finding their response, however, as Carl Meyer took Cave’s tackle in his stride to ground in the corner off Hallam Amos’ pass, the conversion missing to set the gap at 11 points with six minutes remaining.
As time ticked away Adair ensured Ulster did not leave Newport empty-handed, touching down in the last minute of regulation time after dribbling over the line from Gilroy’s chip forward and some help from the boot of Cave. Pienaar added the extras and, although there was time for the restart, the Dragons soon snuffed out a final Ulster surge and cleared to safety to secure only their third home win of the 2014/ 15 campaign.
Full-Time Score Dragons 26 Ulster 22
Dragons (15 – 9) C Meyer; T Prydie, J Dixon, A Smith, H Amos; D Jones, J Evans (15 – 9) B Stankovich, T R Thomas (c), B Harris, A Coombs, C Hill, J Thomas, J Benjamin, N Crosswell
Replacements (16 – 23) R Buckley, P Price, L Fairbrother, M Screech, S Matthews, L Jones, A O’Brien, A Hewitt
Ulster (15 – 9) C Gilroy; R Scholes, D Cave (c), M Stanley, M Allen; I Humphreys, R Pienaar (1 – 8) C Black, R Herring, W Herbst, D Tuohy, F van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Ross, N Williams
Replacements (16 – 23) J Andrew, A Warwick, B Ross, L Stevenson, R Diack, P Marshall, S Arnold, R Adair