Ulster second best in the Dragons' lair
Gwent Dragons 24 Ulster 15
Ulster failed to make it a trio of Irish wins on the opening weekend of the Heineken European Cup as they faltered under the challenge of Gwent Dragons to lose 24-15 at Rodney Parade this afternoon.
South African Percy Montgomery, making his first appearance following a six-month ban, scored the clinching try two minutes from time.
Wing Ben Breeze touched down in the first half, with rival fly-halves Lee Jarvis and David Humphreys staging an inevitable goalkicking duel.
Humphreys landed 15 points to Jarvis' 14, but Breeze and Montgomery made the difference between two evenly-matched teams.
There were no complaints from a 5,500 crowd about the entertainment value, and ultimately, it was the Dragons' forward power that held sway.
The result sets them up nicely for next Sunday's encounter against double Heineken Cup winners Leicester at Welford Road.
Dragons gave Montgomery and Scotland World Cup forward Ross Beattie their debuts.
Full-back Montgomery was suspended last season after he pushed over a touch judge during a Welsh Premiership game between Newport and Swansea, while Ulster paraded a handful of Ireland's World Cup squad, including half-backs Humphreys and Neil Doak.
Ulster, the 1999 European champions, drew first blood through a Humphreys penalty on three minutes, but that advantage was quickly cancelled out when opposite number Jarvis found his range from 30 metres.
A second Humphreys penalty restored Ulster's three-point lead approaching the end of a lively opening quarter, yet the Irish side were reduced to 14 men on 24 minutes after English referee Roy Maybank's patience ran out.
Maybank had consistently punished players for offences around the forward fringes, and prop Simon Best's blatant offside indiscretion in front of the posts saw him yellow-carded and Jarvis on target with the resulting penalty.
Ulster were not flustered by Best's departure though, and Humphreys continued to thwart the Dragons, landing a drop-goal 10 minutes before the break for a 9-6 lead.
The Dragons, desperate to make their temporary one-man advantage count, rumbled up field, and the forwards established a powerful attacking platform.
Ulster predictably could not handle the forward onslaught with Best off. The Dragons sensibly kept it simple, and captain Jason Forster sent an unmarked Breeze over for a try that Jarvis narrowly failed to convert.
Humphreys and company ended the first period on top territorially, yet the Dragons had done enough to secure a slender half-time advantage.
Ulster made an interval substitution, with hooker Paul Shields replacing Matt Sexton, but the visitors quickly retreated when Dragons centre Steve Winn broke from inside his own half.
Ulster conceded a penalty in their desperation to clear danger, and Jarvis completed his penalty hat-trick after Dragons hooker Steve Jones had departed through injury.
Beattie was lucky to escape a card for stamping on Shields, then the Dragons enjoyed another reprieve.
Ulster flanker Neil Best galloped into space and looked to feed unmarked centre Paul Steinmetz, who tripped over referee Maybank and the chance went begging.
A third Humphreys penalty made it 14-12, which was the cue for Dragons coach Mike Ruddock to send on Canada World Cup prop Rod Snow instead of hard-working loosehead Adam Black.
Jarvis' fourth successful penalty secured a five-point lead entering the final quarter, and even Humphreys looked rattled when he sent a straightforward three-point chance wide.
He regained his composure to cut the deficit with a penalty eight minutes from time, but then a drop-goal attempt narrowly missed the target before Montgomery sealed a pulsating Dragons triumph after a breakaway move sparked by scrum-half Gareth Baber.