John Cooney marked his return from international duty by kicking 11 points in Ulster’s 16-12 Guinness PRO14 victory over Cardiff Blues at the Kingspan Stadium.
Though being outscored two tries to one by the Blues and trailing 12-10 at half-time, the Irish province ground this result out with returning Ireland stars Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale playing prominent roles after coming off the bench in the second half.
All the tries came in the opening half with the Blues – who have not won in Belfast since 2010 – getting both Matthew Morgan and Kris Dacey over the line with Ulster’s sole touchdown coming from lock Kieran Treadwell.
The only scores in the second half came from two Cooney penalties.
The four points gives Ulster the ideal response to last weekend’s defeat at the Scarlets, who they now meet in the back-to-back Champions Cup rounds.
The Blues – who lost lock Seb Davies to the bin at a critical point in the second half – take a losing bonus point from Belfast as they prepare for their two European clashes with Saracens.
After just two minutes, Ulster were ahead thanks to a Cooney penalty.
But the Blues, with former Ulster player Nick Williams prominent, came straight back into the game and took the lead after nine minutes with a well-worked try.
After a period of pressure Morgan made the left corner but Jarrod Evans missed the difficult conversion.
Their lead lasted four minutes as Ulster then managed to respond with a converted try when Stuart McCloskey took a tap penalty and made ground before supplying lock Treadwell.
The ball hit the second row’s knee and he fell on the ball and rolled over the line to score a rather unusual-looking try which Cooney converted after the TMO had been consulted.
The Blues came back again and six minutes later the scores were level when hooker Dacey was on the back of an impressive maul launched after Cardiff had again won penalties inside Ulster’s 22.
This time Evans converted and the Blues led 12-10, which is how the half ended with no further scores from either side.
The second half’s most notable event prior to Davies’ 54th-minute binning for an illegal hit on Ross Kane was a scrap involving McCloskey and Lloyd Williams which developed into a melee.
Ulster put their penalty into the corner and, after several pick and goes near the Blues line, Dillon Lewis was penalised for going off his feet and Cooney slotted the 56th-minute penalty to nudge
the home side back into the lead at 13-12.
The Blues, still with 14 men, then put Tomas Williams through a hole in the Ulster defence with only a last-gasp tackle from prop Eric O’Sullivan preventing the score.
Then, on 66 minutes, Ulster earned a penalty after pinching a lineout and Cooney landed it to put his side four points in front.
Then, with time nearly up, Best and Stockdale won vital turnover penalties as the Blues threw everything at rescuing the game.