Cave's try lets Ulster breathe sigh of relief
Ulster 27 Connacht 16
Ulster remain on course for a Magners League play-off slot, but they were made to fight to the bitter end by a determined Connacht side at Ravenhill last night.
An injury-time try by Darren Cave finally stretched Ulster's lead into the comfort zone. It moved Brian McLaughlin's side temporarily into second slot behind Munster, but there is still a lot of rugby to go before Ulster can nail that semi-final place.
The hosts started brightly, with converted tries from skipper Rory Best and full-back Adam D'Arcy giving them a 14-6 half-time lead.
However, Ulster fell off their game in the second half and a stunning try by hooker Sean Cronin and the boot Ian Keatley -- who finished with 11 points -- made it a one-point game.
But Ulster restored their ascendancy at the end, although they missed out on a vital bonus point -- something that could come back to haunt them.
The first time Connacht managed to get into Ulster's territory in the opening half was from the restart after Best's opening try in the seventh minute.
It came at the end of a superb passage of play by Ulster with out-half Ian Humphreys feeding D'Arcy with a neat inside flick. The Australian then found Cave, who weaved in and out before giving a try-scoring pass to his skipper. Humphreys converted from in front of the posts.
However, Connacht's first real involvement also brought dividends when they held on to possession and Keatley popped over a dropped goal.
Ulster continued to dominate possession and territory, but found the Connacht defence stubborn.
Indeed, the visitors could have shot ahead midway through the half when Humphreys had a kick charged down and flying wing Fionn Carr was about to get into his stride with nobody in front of him, only for a last-ditch tackle by D'Arcy to save a certain try.
Connacht put the screws on Ulster in the run-up to the break with some excellent recycling work which had Ulster's defence stretched.
But they were caught with a sucker punch when they were penalised for holding.
A quick tap penalty by Ruan Pienaar on his own '22' moved Ulster forward and Humphreys carved through an opening on the right on the half-way line and his pass to D'Arcy gave the full-back a free run to the line. Humphreys finished what he started by converting.
A penalty right at the end of the first period by Keatley left Connacht trailing 14-6 at the break.
Keatley saw another penalty rebound from an upright immediately on the restart, but he succeeded with another a few minutes later, as Ulster began to rack up the misdemeanours.
Connacht also began to annoy English referee JP Doyle and Humphreys grabbed back three points with his first penalty -- but then that superb try came out of the blue by the visitors.
Keatley made the initial dart in midfield 40 metres out and he found the speeding Cronin in support, with the hooker accelerating past D'Arcy like an exocet to score midway out. It was a brilliant score which Keatley converted and Ulster now knew they were in a fight.
Connacht continued to pester Ulster before the home team put together their best passage of play of the game to move sweetly upfield -- but their only reward was another Humphreys penalty in the 69th minute.
There was still a bit of work to do against a Connacht side who simply refused to lie down. But they finally had the fire taken out of their bellies when, after sustained pressure, a fit-again Cave speared in under the posts with Humphreys adding the extras.
Game safe and play-off place still on the cards.
Ulster -- A D'Arcy; C Gilroy, D Cave, N Spence, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; P McAllister, R Best, J Cronin (Young, 55), J Muller, D Tuohy, C Henry, W Faloon (Diack, 73), P Wannenburg.
Connacht -- G Duffy; E Griffin, N Ta'auso (O'Halloran, 34) T Nathan, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson (Loughney, 62), S Cronin (Flavin, 79), J Hagan (Ah You, 68), M Swift, B Upton, M McCarthy (Browne, 80), J O'Connor, J Muldoon (McComish, 68).
Ref -- JP Doyle (Eng).