Play-off hopes dented as 13-man Ulster self-destruct
Ill-discipline cost Ulster dear as Cardiff Blues edged to a hard-fought victory in a tense Magners League encounter.
Ryan Caldwell and Darren Cave were yellow-carded in the second period as the northerners pressed the self-destruct button at the Cardiff City stadium.
The Blues capitalised on the numerical advantage instantly as replacement flanker Ma'ama Molitika powered home for the game's only try to secure the hosts a crucial victory.
The defeat extended Ulster's miserable losing run in the Welsh capital to six matches and severely dented their play-off hopes.
The result allows the Blues to leapfrog Ulster, who now have slipped down to eighth place in the table, well adrift of the play-off positions.
The visitors had welcomed back big-hitters Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace for the crunch tie as they chased an unlikely top-four spot.
The Ireland trio faced No 8 Xavier Rush, who will ply his trade at Ravenhill next season, and the New Zealander led the Blues out on his 100th competitive appearance for them.
Ben Blair handed the Blues a 10th-minute lead with a close-range penalty but although the hosts dominated the early possession and territory on a greasy surface, Ulster fought back to level the scores though Niall O'Connor.
The out-half then missed an opportunity to nudge the visitors ahead in the 27th minute before the home side applied the pressure. A superb last-ditch tackle by full-back Jamie Smith denied Martyn Williams short of the line but Blair fired Dai Young's men into the lead once again with a second penalty and then added a third on the stroke of half-time for a healthy 9-3 advantage.
Ulster struggled to gain a foothold in the contest at the start of the second period, but O'Connor capitalised on a reversed penalty with an excellent strike from the half-way line to cut the deficit to just three points.
Leigh Halfpenny had a further chance to push the Blues ahead but fell short. Then Ulster became their own worst enemies in seven minutes of madness.
Second-row Caldwell was sent to the sin-bin for persistent infringing but Blair wasted another kicking chance from the penalty. As the tension increased, Blair showed his nerves by hitting the left-hand upright; neither side appeared able to deliver the knock-out blow.
However, the visitors were reduced to 13 men when Cave tripped Halfpenny on 67 minutes and the Blues took advantage instantly.
Blair kicked to the right corner and Molitika caught the line-out and crashed over for a converted try.
O'Connor landed his third penalty to reduce the gap to seven points but Blair sealed victory with his fourth penalty in the dying seconds to deny Ulster a losing bonus-point.
Cardiff Blues -- B Blair; L Halfpenny, C Laulala, T Shanklin (D Hewitt 31), T James; C Sweeney, R Rees; G Jenkins, R Thomas, T Filise (S Andrews 20-29), S Morgan, P Tito (capt, A Pretorius 50-57), A Powell (M Molitika 64), M Williams, X Rush.
Ulster -- J Smith; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, S Danielli (T Nagusa 77); N O'Connor, P Marshall; T Court (D Fitzpatrick 62), R Best (N Brady 75), B Botha; D Tuohy (E O'Donoghue 50), R Caldwell; S Ferris, D Pollock, C Henry (capt).
REF -- N Paterson (SRU).