After a probing start from the home team, Ulster came agonisingly close in the fourth minute when Craig Gilroy latched on to Adam D'Arcy's kick-on before beating several Dragons and looking to return the ball to D'Arcy five metres from the line. The rapid pass was knocked on by the full-back, however, but Ulster were on the scoresheet moments later when Ian Humphreys kicked over a penalty from the middle of the park.
Then, on nine minutes, it was over to Nevin Spence, recently named Irish Rugby Union Players' Association Young Player of the Year, to light up the encounter with a magnificent individual try which started on the half-way line, and saw the young centre use all his pace and power to swathe his way diagonally through the Dragons' defence and ground by the right-hand corner flag. Humphreys' conversion attempt from a difficult angle missed the posts, but with the score at Dragons 0 Ulster 8, it was a more than satisfactory opening 10 minutes for the visitors.
The Dragons came back hard and fast, but a combination of astute defending and good fortune for Ulster eventually allowed Ruan Pienaar to clear his lines on the 20-minute mark. Replacement kicker Matthew Jones got Dragons off the mark with a penalty moments later, but Ulster responded strongly with a great surge through the middle by Diack gaining valuable territory before the Number Eight was crowded out.
Ulster recycled well and, when D'Arcy picked up metres from the line, the full-back showed great presence of mind by releasing the ball backwards before being bundled out of play by the corner flag. Spence was on-hand once more to grab the ball and stretch over the line for try number two. The second successive failed conversion attempt by Humphreys meant the score stayed at Dragons 3 Ulster 13.
The Dragons kept the scoreboard ticking over, however, with a Jason Tovey penalty on 34 minutes, but were penalised themselves just after the restart, and Humphreys elected to kick for touch. The line-out was missed by both sides, but Pedrie Wannenburg proved to be the most alert man on the pitch, capitalising on hesitation by Tovey to pick up 10 metres from the try-line and force his way over to propel Ulster one step closer to the semi-finals. This time Humphreys converted to raise the gap to 14 points at Dragons 6 Ulster 20 just prior to half-time.
Half-Time Score Dragons 6 Ulster 20
The second half opened as an end-to-end battle under torrential rain which had started during the break, and as the playing conditions rapidly deteriorated, Jones saw a long-range 50th-minute penalty rebound off the right-hand upright, before a patient build-up saw Tom Riley touch down for five points, raised to seven by Jones to set the score at Dragons 13 Ulster 20.
With an hour elapsed, Luke Charteris strayed offside at a strong Ulster maul, but Humphreys' penalty was a touch too straight and fell to the right of the posts. The Dragons continued to probe and press, now sitting at just a converted try from parity, but the Ulster defence withstood everything the Welshmen had to throw at them as the clock wound down to two minutes.
Ulster closed out the match not in possession but with play deep in the Dragons' half, and, when Paddy McAllister grabbed the ball on halfway on 80 minutes, his grateful kick into touch secured Ulster's passage to the semi-finals, where they join Munster, Leinster and the Ospreys in the quest for Magners League glory.
Full-Time Score Dragons 13 Ulster 20
(15 - 9) S Jones; A Hughes, T Riley, P Leach, A Brew; J Tovey, W Evans
(1 - 8) P Price, L Burns, D Way, L Charteris (c), A Jones, D Lydiate, G Thomas, T Faletau
Replacements (16 - 23) T Willis, H Gustafson, B Castle, A Coombs, J Bearman, M Watkins, J Evans, M Jones
(15 - 9) A D'Arcy; C Gilroy, D Cave, N Spence, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, R Best (c), D Fitzpatrick, J Muller, D Tuohy, P Wannenburg, C Henry, R Diack
Replacements (16 - 23) A Kyriacou, P McAllister, J Vronin, T Barker, TJ Anderson, P Marshall, I Whitten, C Gaston
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|Ulster Rugby Score Card|