Improved Dragons defeated in Belfast
Elliot Dee grabbed a try on his 100th league appearance but it was play-off bound Ulster that secured maximum points in a BKT United Rugby Championship thriller at Kingspan Stadium.
A powerful second half fightback in Belfast saw Dai Flanagan’s men show plenty of spirit and determination as they looked to spring an upset.
Angus O’Brien had scored a superb first half try but Ulster went to their powerful driving maul to secure a 19-7 half-time lead.
Tom Stewart’s third of the game looked to have wrapped up it before a two-try blast in a minute from Dragons - with Dee and Rhodri Williams scoring – had home alarm bells ringing.
Nick Timoney wrestled back control with 12 minutes left to ensure the home side strengthened their bid for a home play-off spot.
Dragons made six changes to the side that lost to Glasgow in Europe with O’Brien in at ten while Max Clark, Rhodri Jones, Dee, Leon Brown and Matthew Screech came in.
A solid early high take from O’Brien saw the visitors make a bright start and earn early territory before the ball was lost forward.
A first real home attack saw Ulster demonstrate their ruthless edge as Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale linked up with David McCann to send the back row over.
A superb response saw Taine Basham cut a magnificent line to break away before his sublime offload on the floor found O’Brien to dart under the posts to draw the sides level.
Dragons were playing with real zip and invention with Leon Brown and Aaron Wainwright both blasting into contact to make hard yards.
Stockdale was proving a constant threat and it was his break that looked to set up a second home score as Craig Gilroy dived over. However, the try was chalked off for obstruction in midfield.
Dragons looked to make the penalty count as they kicked deep and rattled up close, only for James Hume to win a turnover under his own posts.
Dee produced a wonderful turnover on Jeffery Toomaga Allen as Ulster threatened again only for Dragons to look to counter from deep.
A huge Ulster scrum on visiting ball saw them win a penalty and immediately kick to the corner for the driving maul that hooker Tom Stewart dotted down for his 14th of the season.
Ulster were starting to turn the screw before the break as they applied pressure at the set piece before McCloskey’s cross kick forced Nott to race back and boot out.
Dragons were guilty of collapsing the driving maul twice, with Elliot Dee yellow carded as a result by referee Ben Blain, before Stewart grabbed his second of the night.
The visitors looked to have the final word of the half as they applied pressure with Ashton Hewitt threatening down the left flank before the ball was lost.
Basham produced another lung-busting run from deep to break over halfway after the interval before O’Brien’s huge 50:22 set up an attack.
Rosser produced a incisive run from deep to nearly splinter the home defence before a floated pass from O’Brien just failed to release Hewitt out wide.
Stewart, though, was not to be denied his treble as Stewart Moore made the initial break before the ball was spun wide for the hooker to profit on the wing.
Aneurin Owen made his comeback just before the hour, joined by Will Reed, as Flanagan started to look to his bench.
Dyer’s neat kick down the line forced a lineout that Dee profited from to score on his milestone URC appearance.
Within a minute the visitors had a third as turnover ball gave them numbers and allowed captain Williams to race over to cut the lead to 26-19.
The home side looked rattled with Jordan Williams tearing down the right flank but his wide pass just evaded Dyer.
Ulster needed to regroup quickly, and did so as more home pressure saw replacement Nick Timoney go over after a neat tip on.
Dragons went to the maul late on hunting a try bonus, but Ulster repelled the attack and forced the scrum.
Ashton Hewitt was yellow carded on the final play as Ulster went wide and the knock down resulted in a penalty try to the hosts.
08m McCann t Cooney c 7-0
12m O’Brien t O’Brien c 7-7
30m Stewart t 12-7
38m Stewart t Cooney c 19-7
49m Stewart t Cooney c 26-7
56m Dee t Reed c 26-14
57m R. Williams t 26-19
68m Timoney t Cooney c 33-19
79m Penalty t 40-19
Ulster: Mike Lowry, Craig Gilroy, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Tom Stewart, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Sam Carter, David McCann, Marcus Rea, Duane Vermeulen
Replacements: John Andrew, Andy Warwick, Jeffery Toomaga Allen, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy
Dragons RFC: Jordan Williams, Rio Dyer (L. Jones 65), Jared Rosser, Max Clark (Owen 54), Ashton Hewitt, Angus O’Brien (Reed 54), Rhodri Williams; Rhodri Jones (Reynolds 67), Elliot Dee (Coghlan 63), Leon Brown (Fairbrother 28), Ben Carter, Matthew Screech, George Nott (Lonsdale 59), Taine Basham, Aaron Wainwright (Young 75)
Replacements: Brodie Coghlan, Josh Reynolds, Lloyd Fairbrother, Sean Lonsdale, George Young, Lewis Jones, Will Reed, Aneurin Owen
Referee: Ben Blain (Scot)