Ulster finished 2016 on a low note this afternoon at the RDS as interprovincial rivals and fellow top four chasers Leinster outplayed the visitors to register a 22 - 7 victory, and nudge Les Kiss's team out of the play-off places.
Charles Piutau's try was the sole positive for Ulster, who lacked a clinical edge in the first half and conceded three soft tries, before an improvement in the second half which ensured the hosts were denied a four-try bonus point.
While deprived of rested Ireland internationals Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson, the Ulster starting XV was bolstered by the return of winger Andrew Trimble, back for his first start after sustaining a foot injury in November. Three other personnel changes to the backline brought in Darren Cave at centre, Tommy Bowe to the wing, and Paul Marshall at scrum-half, with Ruan Pienaar shifting to out-half. Full-back Piutau and centre Stuart McCloskey retained their starting positions from the victory over Connacht.
Three changes to the pack saw Rob Herring lead the team from hooker with Andy Warwick and Rodney Ah You continuing in the front row, Franco van der Merwe slot into the second row alongside Kieran Treadwell, and Sean Reidy join Clive Ross and Roger Wilson at the base of the scrum.
Despite the advantage of a strong wind at their backs, a stilted first-half display from Ulster saw Kiss's side run off at half-time with not a single point under their belts. Pienaar had an early chance to make his mark on the game with a third-minute penalty from distance, but the kick was dragged just wide and Leinster wasted little time in opening the scoring from the restart, Rory O'Loughlin picking up in midfield and showing Cave, Trimble and Marshall a clean pair of heels for a fine individual try.
Isa Nacewa's conversion and another missed Pienaar penalty kept the momentum firmly in favour of the hosts, who had knock-ons from Devin Toner and Sean O'Brien to rue for a barren 10 minutes until a high tackle from McCloskey on Sean Cronin gave Nacewa a simple three-pointer on 18 minutes.
A bright Ulster response saw Bowe almost capitalise on a loose knock-back from O'Brien - the winger somehow leaving the ball behind him as he sped into the '22' - before a charge-down on O'Loughlin's clearance almost let Trimble in.
Leinster absorbed the pressure without great difficulty, however, and when Ah You strayed offside on the half-hour, a simple short put-in at the lineout to Jack McGrath took a slumbering Ulster defence by surprise and allowed scrum-half Luke McGrath a free run to the line for a training-ground try, converted once again by Nacewa.
Half-Time Score Leinster 17 Ulster 0
The second half started no better for Ulster; O'Loughlin grabbing his second of the afternoon with the period barely two minutes old as he outpaced Piutau to Ross Byrne's low kick to the corner flag.
A second change to the front row - John Andrew having come on in the first half for the injured Herring - handed prop Jonny Simpson his first cap in place of Ah You, and with Chris Henry also joining the fray for Wilson, the recipient of another knock, the personnel changes seemed to invigorate Ulster.
First Cave came close in a move that ended with Jack McGrath seeing yellow on 55 minutes, and although Ulster held onto the ball for the majority of the prop's 10-minute exile, their lack of penetration ensured McGrath retook the field with the visitors' scoresheet still blank.
The breakthrough came with four minutes to go, Piutau picking up Pienaar's blind pass to burst through the middle and score, but while the conversion went some way to sparing the Ulster blushes, it was scant consolation for a poor team performance.
Ulster will look for big improvements in their next Guinness Pro12 clash, with the Scarlets in Wales Friday next before the European Champions Cup resumes with must-win Round Five and Six meetings with Exeter Chiefs and Bordeaux-Begles.
Full-Time Score Leinster 22 Ulster 7
Leinster (15 - 9) Isa Nacewa (c); Adam Byrne, Garry Ringrose, Noel Reid, Rory O'Loughlin; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath
(1 - 8) Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Michael Bent, Devin Toner, Hayden Triggs, Sean O'Brien, Josh van der Flier, Jamie Heaslip
Replacements (16 - 23) Richardt Strauss, Andrew Porter, Jeremy Loughman, Mick Kearney, Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Tom Daly, Zane Kirchner
Ulster (15 - 9) Charles Piutau; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Tommy Bowe; Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall
(1 - 8) Andy Warwick, Rob Herring (c), Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell, Franco van der Merwe, Clive Ross, Sean Reidy, Roger Wilson
Replacements (16 - 23) John Andrew, Callum Black, Jonny Simpson, Pete Browne, Chris Henry, Brett Herron, Louis Ludik, Jacob Stockdale