Gaston got off to an assured start with the confident take of a high ball under pressure in the second minute and, with honours even in the early skirmishes in midfield, Ulster capitalised on a 10th-minute line-out on the Dragons' '22', Luke Marshall feeding Nevin Spence, who bulldozed his way through a handful of tackles and under the posts for a well-worked try. Pienaar converted to raise the score to Ulster 7 Dragons 0.
An errant Jason Tovey penalty attempt four minutes later kept the Dragons' account blank, but the out-half atoned two minutes later when Aled Brew kicked on a loose ball missed by both Pienaar and Adam D'Arcy, and Tovey picked up metres from the line for the simplest of tries. His kick was off-target again, however, and Ulster 7 Dragons 5 it remained.
A second home lineout from the same spot with 25 minutes gone failed to prove as fruitful as the first, but probing play from Jackson earned a highly kickable penalty which Pienaar gratefully dispatched to extend the lead to five points. A series of scrums and territorial kicks ensued as half-time approached, neither team making much headway until some lightning-quick exchanges down the left flank got Johann Muller deep into Dragons territory. During some dogged defending the Welshmen knocked on, and Gaston, picking up from the scrum, was unlucky to veer out of play on the right wing before he could reach the try-line.
Half-Time Score Ulster 10 Dragons 5
With the Dragons fumbling the Ulster kick-off at the start of the second period, the home side were presented with an early initiative, but their attack soon broke down thanks to a marginally forward pass by Marshall. An Ulster 10-metre line infringement gave Tovey a further goal-kicking opportunity on 48 minutes, but the try-scorer continued to prove less effective with his foot than his hands as his penalty again sailed wide.
The Welshmen continued to press, however, and their efforts were rewarded on 55 minutes with a try from flanker Lewis Evans. With kicking duties now entrusted to Adam Hughes, the conversion put the visitors into the lead for the first time at Ulster 10 Dragons 12 just before the hour mark.
The Dragons were now in control of the tie, and it came as no surprise when Brew ripped through a wafer-thin Ulster defence to register his side's third try on 62 minutes. Hughes was unable to convert the score, but the gap was disconcertingly wide at Ulster 10 Dragons 17.
Ulster's response was stirring. With Brian McLaughlin having made several changes made around the 65-minute mark, two recent entrants - Pedrie Wannenburg and Tommy Seymour - proved instrumental in the comeback. The huge Springbok, recently shorn of most of his trademark locks, proved to have lost none of his strength by barging through a succession of tackles on the left flank, and supplying the replacement full-back, whose power took him over for Ulster's second try. The Pienaar conversion was narrowly off-target, but the home team were back in it at Ulster 15 Dragons 17.
A 75th-minute penalty by Matthew Jones gave the Dragons five points' worth of breathing space, but it was to prove insufficient as, after some precise passing on the '22', Cave marked his comeback by bursting through the middle and sliding over the line by the right-hand post to a rapturous Ravenhill ovation. Pienaar converted with the clock flirting with overtime, but, with the score at Ulster 22 Dragons 20, there was still time for two more twists in the tale.
The Dragons won possession from their own restart and surged upfield, holding on to possession well until the opening came to Tovey for the drop-goal attempt. The out-half chose the perfect time to score his first points of the evening from the boot, putting his side one point ahead with what seemed like the decisive kick.
There was, however, time for one final restart, which Ulster, just as the Dragons had done seconds earlier, managed to secure and build upon. Aggressive running from Pienaar in particular brought the Ulstermen to within kicking distance of the posts, but with Jackson off and Pienaar momentarily at the bottom of a pile of bodies after releasing the ball, there was no recognisable kicker available. Ulster intelligently held fire, recycling well until the scrum-half was in position, and his strike was the sweetest of the night, as the drop goal edged Ulster to victory.
Full-Time Score Ulster 25 Dragons 23
(15 - 9) A D'Arcy; C Gaston, N Spence, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) P McAllister, A Kyriacou, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (c), T Barker, C Henry, W Faloon, R Diack
Replacements (16 - 23) N Brady, B Young, J Cronin, D Tuohy, P Wannenburg, P Marshall, D Cave, T Seymour
(15 - 9) M Thomas; W Harries, A Hughes, P Leach, A Brew; J Tovey, W Evans
(1 - 8) P Price, L Burns, D Way, L Charteris (c), A Jones, A Coombs, L Evans, J Bearman
Replacements (16 - 23) S Jones, H Gustafson, P Palmer, A Brown, T Faletau, T Riley, J Leadbeater, M Jones
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