Ulster lost ground in the race for the Guinness PRO12 playoffs after suffering a bitter defeat to the Scarlets in grim West Wales conditions.
Jacob Stockdale’s first-half try and eight points from the boot of the impressive Paddy Jackson looked to have capped off a professional performance with a triumph at Parc y Scarlets.
But a Sean Reidy’s high tackle on Aled Davies inches from the try-line surrendered a penalty try to hand the Welsh region an undeserved victory that put them seven points clear of Les Kiss’ side.
Glasgow Warriors face Cardiff Blues today as they look to match the Scarlets in pulling away from the Ulstermen.
Paddy Jackson had returned to strengthen Ulster as they aimed to keep pace with the top four, but his charged-down kick almost gifted the Scarlets an early lead.
Opposite number Dan Jones blocked the chip and hacked on, but Jackson raced back to force a knock-on just before the line.
Another returning Ireland star, Rory Best, handed Jones the chance to give the hosts the advantage when he went off his feet at a ruck, and he made no mistake from the kicking tee.
Jones was on target again before Jackson cut the gap with a penalty of his own after a high tackle from Jake Ball.
Ulster hit the front thanks to a devastating angle from Stuart McCloskey. The Ireland centre powered between James Davies and Liam Williams and offloaded to Stockdale after powerful attacking scrum.
Jackson landed the conversion before adding a penalty on the stroke of half-time to give Ulster a 13-6 advantage at the break.
Their half-time lead was soon reigned in though as Marius Mitrea lost patience with the defensive line creeping forward.
Jones made it three kicks from three before the hosts wrestled back the lead with a penalty try.
Replacement scrum-half Aled Davies looked to have been held-up over the line, but on review he had been stopped by a Sean Reidy high tackle, and Mitrea awarded a penalty try.
The Ulster no.8 was sent to the sin-bin to add insult to injury, but Ball soon followed him off for 10 minutes on the sidelines after a high shot of his own.
The time passed with both teams failing to score a point, despite Ulster’s persistent attacking threat.
Jackson darted through but only found Scarlets prop Rob Evans with his offload, and the home side survived.
Ulster had one last chance to snatch victory at Parc Y Scarlets with a scrum deep in enemy territory in the final throws of the match but the ball was spilled.
Scarlets – J Mcnicholl; L Williams (S Hughes 74), Jo Davies, H Parkes, S Evans; D Jones, G Davies (A Davies 40); R Evans (W Jones 69), K Owens (capt) (R Elias 69), W Kruger, J Ball, T Price, L Rawlins (W Boyde 34), Ja Davies, J Barclay.
Ulster – L Ludik; A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale (T Bowe 74); P Jackson, P Marshall (D Shanahan 54); C Black (A Warwick 51), R Best, R Kane (J Simpson 58), K Treadwell, I Henderson, C Ross, C Henry, S Reidy.
REf – M Mitrea (Italy)
Former England coach Clive Woodward has said that the emphasis placed on the Lions by the Celtic teams is the reason for their poor record against southern hemisphere opposition.