Ulster were somewhat off-colour in the first half, with uncharacteristic errors among the backs surrendering possession too often, and indiscipline giving Dragons out-half Tovey multiple opportunities in very kickable positions. In prime rugby-playing conditions, however, Ulster started the brighter, and with the Dragons infringing at the breakdown in the first five minutes, Paddy Jackson kicked the visitors into an early lead from the home 22. But an Ulster offside two minutes later allowed Tovey to redress the balance virtually immediately, before two promising breaks, one for each side, were blighted by knock-ons.
A further Ulster offside on 17 minutes gave Tovey office to put his team into the lead, and prospects began to look gloomy for Brian McLaughlin's men when Nevin Spence was sent to the sinbin on 22 minutes for his second high tackle of the match. The Dragons wasted no time in exploiting the Spence-shaped hole in the centre of Ulster's line, Tom Riley running over after good approach play from the line-out. Tovey converted to establish a ten-point lead at Dragons 13 Ulster 3.
After an off-target penalty attempt from Jackson just before the half-hour, yet another Ulster offside was penalised by referee Neil Patterson, and Tovey was only too happy to oblige and increase the lead further still. But holding on in the tackle from the Dragons straight from the restart allowed Jackson to keep his side in touch, as his superb long-range penalty raised the score to Dragons 16 Ulster 6.
With Spence back in the fray Ulster strove to contain the rampant Dragons until half-time, but were undone on 39 minutes when Paul Marshall strayed offside, and Tovey kicked over his fourth successful penalty of the encounter. A disappointing half then came to an end, with Ulster in dire need of a major improvement in the second period if they were to avoid a heavy defeat.
Half-Time Score Dragons 19 Ulster 6
A bright break engineered by Luke Marshall in the opening minutes of the second half saw the young centre use his power and speed to thrust into Dragons territory, but in keeping with the pattern of the game thus far, the assault came to an end when Spence was penalised for holding on in the tackle as Ulster neared the try-line. The Dragons then kept up their practice of converting their possession into points moments later, when Tovey kicked over again after Declan Fitzpatrick had been pulled up for not binding.
A 50th-minute Jackson penalty again kept Ulster in touching distance, and one of the visitors' most promising attacks followed, with replacement scrum-half Porter intelligently exploiting a gap in the Dragons defence from the line-out and making excellent ground before a touch of over-exuberance among the Ulster backs resulted in crossing and put paid to the move.
With the next score crucial in determining the outcome of the encounter, Ulster were spared on 63 minutes when Tovey's penalty from the right hand side rebounded off the upright, and were then most unfortunate five minutes later as Ian Whitten's toe just sneaked into touch before he grounded by the left corner flag for what could have been a game-changing try.
It was not to be, however, as the Dragons were happy to close out the game playing percentage rugby in the Ulster half after their late scare. A second consecutive defeat on the road for Brian McLaughlin's outfit sees them sitting on a middling record of three wins from five in the RaboDirect Pro12, a return they will hope to improve upon next Friday when they welcome Benetton Treviso to Ravenhill.
Full-Time Score Dragons 22 Ulster 9
(15 - 9) M Thomas; T Chavhanga, T Riley, A Smith, M Poole; J Tovey, W Evans
(1 - 8) N Williams, T Willis (c), N Buck; A Jones, R Sidoli; A Coombs, G Thomas, L Evans
Repalcements (16 - 23) R Buckley, P Price, K Jenkins, D Waters, J Groves, J Bedford, G O'Driscoll, M Jones
(15 - 9) A D'Arcy; C Gilroy, N Spence, L Marshall, I Whitten; P Jackson, P Marshall
(1 - 8) D Fitzpatrick, N Brady, J Cronin; L Stevenson, D Tuohy; P Wannenburg, W Faloon, C Henry (c)
Replacements (16 - 23) A Kyriacou, K McCall, A Macklin, T Barker, R Diack, I Porter, J McKinney, C Gaston
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