Under dire weather conditions tonight at Kingspan Stadium Ulster just missed out on their fourth consecutive bonus point victory, putting three tries past Italian visitors Benetton Treviso, whose stout defence in the final quarter kept the elusive fourth score at bay.
Jared Payne, Sean Reidy and Charles Piutau got their names on the scoresheet to secure the win which keeps the pressure on fourth-placed Scarlets, one point ahead of Les Kiss's side in advance of the Welsh outfit's match at Leinster tomorrow evening.
Gunning for their fourth bonus-point victory in as many weeks, Ulster's firepower was boosted by the return of Ireland backs Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble and Payne, lining up at full-back, wing and centre respectively.
The remainder of the backline was of a similarly high quality, with Stuart Olding in midfield, Piutau on the wing, and the half-back partnership of Peter Nelson and Ruan Pienaar.
Five changes to the pack brought in loosehead Callum Black alongside hooker Rob Herring and tighthead Wiehahn Herbst, and an all- new second row of Kieran Treadwell and Franco van der Merwe. The return of Marcell Coetzee at Number Eight meant Reidy switched to openside flanker, with Roger Wilson coming in at blindside.
Once an early Treviso penalty from Tito Tibaldi had gone begging, Ulster assumed complete control firstly with Trimble latching onto a fine crossfield kick from Nelson, then Gilroy almost forcing his way through the middle as the backs moved the ball swiftly despite the poor conditions.
Try-scoring opportunities, however, were in short supply on the muddy surface until a 19th-minute scrum created the space for Payne to slide over from Olding's pass, Pienaar adding the extras.
Tireless chasing from Treadwell forced Ian McKinley and the ball into touch just after the restart, but a lack of real cohesion in the home ranks meant an eventual loss of possession, and the Italians enjoyed a good spell of pressure until knocking on deep in the Ulster '22'.
A steal by Herring at the Treviso lineout engineered Ulster's next notable chance, but a good five minutes of pressure came to naught as Coetzee lost control of the ball from Pienaar's pass five metres out. There was still time before the break, however, for a final push off a close-range lineout, but another Ulster knock-on ensured Treviso ran off only seven points adrift.
Half-Time Score Ulster 7 Benetton Treviso 0
Brave contesting of a 50-50 ball on the deck from Olding got Ulster off on the front foot as the second half opened, their cause helped further with Francesco Minto sent to the sinbin on 45 minutes for repeated infringements as Treviso battened down the hatches.
The score came seven minutes later, Reidy applying the finishing touch after good ground work from Payne and Pienaar as the Treviso scrum started to creak.
Olding, now at out-half as Luke Marshall replaced Nelson, turned on the style moments later, showing the Italian midfield a clean pair of heels and, despite the return of Minto to the field on 56 minutes, Piutau was soon touching down try number three from the youngster's neat dink to the corner flag.
Treviso bagged themselves a consolation on 70 minutes through lock Filo Paulo, and with fewer than five minutes remaining the prospect of a bonus point for Ulster began to look exceedingly unlikely - until the Italians knocked on just inside the Ulster 10-metre line.
With a try for either side enough to secure the scorers a bonus point, neither team kicked to touch as possession changed hands several times deep into stoppage time, but an eventual knock forward ensured both ran off somewhat disappointed.
Ulster face Italian opposition again next Saturday in the form of Zebre, whom they welcome to Kingspan Stadium for an 18:05 kick-off.
Full-Time Score Ulster 19 Benetton Treviso 7
Ulster (15 - 9) Craig Gilroy; Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne, Stuart Olding, Charles Piutau; Peter Nelson, Ruan Pienaar
(1 - 8) Callum Black, Rob Herring (c), Wiehahn Herbst, Kieran Treadwell, Franco van der Merwe, Roger Wilson, Sean Reidy, Marcell Coetzee
Replacements (16 - 23) John Andrew, Andy Warwick, Ricky Lutton, Pete Browne, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall, Luke Marshall, Jacob Stockdale
Benetton Treviso (15 - 9) Luca Sperandio; Angelo Esposito, Tommaso Iannone, Michael Tagicakibau, Andrea Buondonno; Ian McKinley, Tito Tibaldi
(1 - 8) Federico Zani, Luca Bigi, Tizano Pasquali, Filo Paulo, Dean Budd (c), Marco Lazzaroni, Francesco Minto, Robert Barbieri
Replacements (16 - 23) Roberto Santamaria, Romulo Acosta, Matteo Zanusso, Filippo Gerosa, Guglielmo Zanini, Giorgio Bronzini, Alberto Sgarbi, Andrea Pratichetti