It was job done for Ulster this evening at Kingspan Stadium as tries from Rory Best and Craig Gilroy consigned league leaders Connacht to an eight-point defeat which deprived them of the consolation of a losing bonus point, and set up for an intriguing Guinness PRO12 run-in.
Ulster move up to fourth place on 55 points courtesy of the win, still eight adrift of tonight's opponents, but within touching distance of Leinster on 59 and Scarlets on 57 ahead of those sides' weekend fixtures.
Director of Rugby Les Kiss welcomed Six Nations representatives Best, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne straight back into the starting XV, along with two other personnel changes which saw Peter Browne come into the second row in place of the injured Alan O'Connor, and Roger Wilson replace Nick Williams, victim of knocks to the groin and shoulder, at Number Eight.
These changes meant Ulster lined up from 15 to 10 with full Ireland internationals, with Payne starting at full-back, Trimble and Gilroy on the wings, Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey partnering up at centre, and Paddy Jackson earning his 101st cap at out-half. Ruan Pienaar completed the back-line at scrum-half.
Up front, Callum Black and Ricky Lutton propped either side of skipper Best, with Franco van der Merwe joining Browne at lock, and the flanker partnership of Iain Henderson - a try scorer on his return to action last weekend against Glasgow - and Chris Henry supporting Wilson in the back row.
Once Jackson had drawn first blood for Ulster with a fifth-minute penalty the league leaders soon got into gear, but when Gilroy pounced on a loose ball deep in his own half only a despairing shirt-tug from opposite number Matt Healy stopped the winger from breaking free for a nailed-on score.
A second Jackson penalty soon followed, but more expansive rugby from the Westerners again brought with it a tangible sense of menace, and as they kicked successive penalties to touch it took an eventual forward pass wide on the left to halt their progress.
Jackson eschewed a pop at the posts of his own on 27 minutes, the Ulster pack vindicating their out-half's decision with a sublime 15-metre drive to the line, with Best carrying for two-thirds of the trip and touching down after van der Merwe's take.
The Jackson conversion came back off the post, but with Ulster now closing down their opponents much more quickly - and crucially first to every 50-50 ball - the visitors adopted a more realistic approach as half-time loomed, and Shane O'Leary could only watch in disbelief as his 30-metre penalty thumped off an upright and directly into Ulster hands.
However one last effort from the out-half with the clock well into the red got his side off the mark to cut the Ulster lead to eight at the break.
Half-Time Score Ulster 11 Connacht 3
Ulster's start to the second half was nothing short of blistering, with the second try on the scoreboard within four minutes courtesy of some inspired ball-carrying from lock Peter Browne, and a spectacular diving offload in the tackle from Payne to allow Gilroy in for the score.
Jackson converted but, with his side soon down to 14 with Trimble sent to the bin for an intentional knock-on, defence became the order of the day - but there was little Jackson and Gilroy could do to stop replacement scrum-half Blade as he nipped through a gap on 55 minutes, O'Leary converting.
With Trimble back in the ranks for the final quarter, the Ulster complexion immediately regained its healthy glow, and another five-metre lineout almost paid dividends as Best this time peeled off the back of the maul and barged his way through four challenges to drop onto the line.
After some deliberation, however, TMO Brian MacNeice advised that the hooker had been held up in his attempt to ground, and the chance went begging as Connacht scrummaged combatively at five metres.
MacNeice was soon called into action once more to advise on a potential high tackle from O'Leary on Gilroy, which saw the out-half yellow-carded and put paid to any realistic hopes of a late Connacht comeback - particularly when Sean O'Brien joined him in the bin moments later for intentional obstruction.
Ulster probed and pressed for the remainder of the encounter, with tempers fraying three minutes from time in traditional interprovincial fashion as Finlay Bealham and Iain Henderson squared up at the issue of a tightly-contested maul - but it all ended with a handshake and the Ulstermen cruised through to the final whistle.
Next up for Ulster are Zebre in Italy in two weeks' time, before crucial clashes with Leinster at home and Ospreys away - every game now a cup-final in the quest for a play-off place.
Full-Time Score Ulster 18 Connacht 10
Ulster (15 - 9) Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar
(1 - 8) Callum Black, Rory Best (c), Ricky Lutton, Peter Browne, Franco van der Merwe, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson
Replacements (16 - 23) Rob Herring, Kyle McCall, Bronson Ross, Robbie Diack, Sean Reidy, Paul Marshall, Stuart Olding, Darren Cave
Connacht (15 - 9) Robbie Henshaw; Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki, Peter Robb, Matt Healey; Shane O'Leary, John Cooney
(1 - 8) Dennis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You, Andrew Browne, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon, James Connolly, Eoin McKeon
Replacements (16 - 23) Dave Heffernan, Ronan Loughney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Sean O'Brien, Caolin Blade, Cormac Brennan, Danie Poolman