It was a frenetic start as the wind and rain eased for kick-off , and Shane O’Leary settled confidently into the Connacht out-half role on his Pro 12 debut, but Ulster had the more attacking mind-set, and when the visitors went off-side at the ruck Paddy Jackson put his side 3-0 up after four minutes with a straightforward penalty.
But on seven minutes Niyi Adeolokun streaked into the Ulster ‘22’ to allow his pack to lay siege to the hosts’ line, only for Craig Gilroy to make a critical interception and race fully 50 metres before being hauled down.
But that eventually brought another penalty for Ulster and Jackson neatly made it 6-0 in the 11th minute, and the lead could have been greater had the adventure of Andrew Trimble and Ruan Pienaar not been foiled by Connacht skipper John Muldoon.
Slowly the pace of the game slackened, and the exchanges in the lines-out and at the breakdown were robust, Rory Best and Iain Henderson prominent for Ulster, No.8 Eoin McKeon and lock Andrew Browne unyielding as Connacht sought a real foothold in the match.
But in the 27th minute Jackson chose to kick a penalty to the right corner, Best’s throw to Franco van der Merwe was perfect and the ensuing driving maul brought a well-worked try for Best on the right, Jackson’s conversion striking the woodwork, and Ulster led 11-0.
Then Robbie Henshaw’s partially charged down up-and-under fell into Muldoon’s hands on the left, and his clever off-load almost sent in scrum-half John Cooney who just put a foot in touch.
Errors now began to litter both sides’ admirable attacking efforts in treacherous underfoot conditions, and O’Leary saw a straightforward penalty strike a post in 38 minutes, but the out-half made amends just before the break after energetic forward pressure drew the penalty on the right which reduced the interval deficit to 11-3.
Connacht started the second period with unlikely ambition in its own ‘22’, but that invited Ulster to launch a wave of attacks, and the hugely impressive Jared Payne sent winger Craig Gilroy in on the left, Jackson adding the points, as the home side stretched ahead by 18-3 After Trimble went off-side and was sent to the ‘bin’ on 43 minutes, the visitors threw caution to the wind, Henshaw almost breaching the well-organised Ulster defence.
And as they stretched the 14 men in white Connacht inevitably drew its reward, replacement scrum-half Caolin Blade diving in on the left, O’Leary converting in style to reduce the deficit to eight points.
Trimble’s return, and the introduction of Robbie Diack and Kyle McCall to the pack, seemed to galvanise Ulster, and when Jackson again chose to kick for the right corner Best again surged for the line, only desperate Connacht defence denying him the touchdown.
The Ulster tide kept coming, and O’Leary was sinbinned for a high tackle on the speeding Gilroy in71 minutes. For fully 15 minutes Connacht was trapped in its own ‘22’, and only impatience at the ruck allowed the visitors some small relief with a long chase down the left.
Clearly chasing a bonus point win Ulster’s control was almost total, despite the vigour of Peter Robb and Henshaw in defying the white attacking tsunami, but frustration got the better of both teams with three minutes left as a flurry of fists flew after another gruelling maul.
Referee Dudley Phillips called both skippers aside and tempers swiftly cooled as Ulster secured a vital 18-10 win to move back into the Top Four, while Connacht stayed top and saw its record five-match winning sequence ended in a match full of excitement, lacking much in quality, but providing 80 minutes of typical Interpro fire.
Tries: R. Best, Gilroy. Cons: Jackson. Pens: Jackson 2.
J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall (Cave, 60), S McCloskey (Olding, 75) , C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall, 65); C Black , R Best (capt) (Herring, 64-70), R Lutton (Ross, 77); P Browne (Diack, 53), F van der Merwe; I Henderson (herring, 78), C Henry (Reidy, 46), R Wilson.
R Herring, K McCall, B Ross, R Diack, S Reidy, P Marshall, S Olding(McCall, 46), D Cave.
Tries: Blade. Cons: S. O’Leary. Pens: S. O’Leary.
R Henshaw; N Adeolokun (Poolman, 47), B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; S O’Leary, J Cooney (Blade, 47); D Buckley Loughney, 71), T McCartney, R Ah You (Bealham, 42); A Browne, A Muldowney (Dillane, 42); J Muldoon (capt), J Connolly, E McKeon.
D Heffernan, R Loughrey, F Bealham, U Dillane, S O’Brien, C Blade, C Brennan, D Poolman.
D Phillips (IRFU) GUINNESS PRO12: Newport Gwent Dragons 20 Ospreys 26; Edinburgh 29 Zebre 0.