United Rugby Championship: Ulster 32 (Tries: Baloucoune, Stewart 3; Cons: Doak 3; Pens: Doak Cooney) Bulls 23 (Tries: Arendse, Burger; Cons: Smith 2; Pens: Smith 3)
It was by no means straightforward, but Ulster found a way to get the job done with another bonus point victory which brought hooker Tom Stewart a hat-trick of tries.
The 22-year-old, who was with the Ireland squad last week, has now banked 14 tries in all competitions for Ulster this season, seven of this total coming in his last three outings to help push the northern province onwards towards potentially overhauling the Stormers in second.
Robert Baloucoune also crossed the line in his comeback game while Nathan Doak kicked nine points from three conversions and a penalty against an off-form Bulls side who put the northern province under huge pressure and were in the game until late in the clash, two yellow cards over the course of the evening damaging their cause.
Just two minutes were on the clock when, from their first visit to the Bulls’ 22, Ulster put width on the ball from a lineout which allowed Michael Lowry put Baloucoune in space to score in the corner though Doak was unable to convert.
The Bulls then earned themselves a penalty when Doak was sacked at a ruck but Chris Smith was wide with the shot.
However, the Bulls’ outhalf hit the mark with his second attempt six minutes later and with the visitors already looking dangerous with ball in hand it was hardly that surprising when Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie attacked from deep with Moddie’s chip and collect creating the space for his full-back to score.
Smith’s conversion put the Bulls 10-5 in front.
Ulster had to respond and did so on 25 minutes when Stewart drove over after a series of penalties had been put to the corner for Ulster to attempt mauls. Doak added an excellent conversion to put Ulster ahead again.
It didn’t last as Zak Burger wriggled over on penalty advantage after the Bulls put together multiple phases in attack. Smith converted and the Bulls led by five points.
Ulster’s maul then misfired as they sought a response only for the Bulls to then take the play up field and win a penalty which allowed Smith to make it 20-12 at the break.
An immediate penalty after the restart allowed Ulster access to their 22 and after Elrigh Louw was yellow carded at an attacking maul the home side barrelled over their line with Stewart claiming his second.
Doak’s conversion cut the Bulls’ lead to one point.
Just after Louw had returned, Ulster got themselves back in the lead when on penalty advantage, Stewart muscled through from close range for his third, which was converted by Doak.
Smith’s third penalty on 62 minutes cut Ulster’s lead to three points and when Ulster earned themselves a 71st minute penalty the northern province opted this time for the posts with Doak landing it.
The Bulls then had what appeared to be a vital penalty reversed after Billy Burns was clattered by sub Bismarck du Plessis and shortly afterwards sub Cooney kicked a last-minute penalty.
Ulster: M Lowry, R Baloucoune, J Hume, S Moore, J Stockdale, B Burns, N Doak, A Warwick, T Stewart, J Toomaga-Allen, K Treadwell, S Carter, D McCann, N Timoney, D Vermeulen (capt). Replacements: J Andrew for Stewart 77mins, E O’Sullivan for Warwick 50mins, G Milasinovich for Toomaga-Allen 61mins, A O’Connor for Treadwell 61mins, H Sheridan for Carter 50mins, J Cooney for Doak 77mins, J Postlethwaite for Moore 50mins, Marcus Rea for McCann 61mins.
Bulls: K-L Arendse, C Moodie, C Hendricks, H Vorster, D Kriel, C Smith, Z Burger, G Steenekamp, J Grobbelaar, M Smith, R Vermaak, R Nortje (capt), M van Staden, C Brink, E Louw. Replacements: S Matanzima for Steenkamp 73mins, B Du Plessis for Van Staden 72mins, F Klopper for M Smith 56mins, J Swanepoel for Vermaak 73mins, WJ Steenkamp for Brink 63mins, E Papier for Burger 55mins, M Steyn for mins, S Gans for Arendse 74mins. Yellow cards: Louw 41mins, Du Plessis 75mins.
Referee: C Evans (WRU).