Pro12: Ulster 13-10 Connacht
|Ulster (10) 13|
|Tries: Gilroy Cons: Jackson Pens: Jackson 2|
|Connacht (3) 10|
|Tries: Muldowney Cons: Carty Pens: Carty|
Ulster held off a determined challenge from Irish interprovincial rivals Connacht to seal a vital narrow win in the Boxing Day Pro12 game in Belfast.
Jack Carty and Paddy Jackson traded penalties, before winger Craig Gilroy crossed for a fine 20th-minute try after going on an angled, incisive run.
Jackson added the conversion to make it 10-3 to the hosts at half-time.
Another Jackson penalty extended the lead but Aly Muldowney touched down for Connacht, with Carty converting.
Ulster were forced to make a change to their line-up prior to the match, with inside centre Stuart Olding coming in for Luke Marshall, who was suffering from a bug.
The visitors made the early running and were rewarded for their promising start when Carty kicked a penalty in front of the posts after five minutes.
Jackson's first kick at the posts was off-target as it sailed wide but the fly-half was successful with his next attempt from closer range to bring the score level.
In difficult wet conditions, Ulster dominated territory and possession for the remainder of the opening period and moved ahead thanks to Gilroy's converted try.
Paul Marshall fed Jackson, who executed a clever inside pass to Gilroy, who spun away from a series of attempted Connacht tackles before diving over the line.
Jackson was unable to add to his side's advantage six minutes later when his penalty drifted outside the near post.
Connacht were forced to play much of the second period inside their own half but defended stoutly, winning a crucial scrum close to their line and Matt Healy collecting Jackson's dangerous cross-field kick on the wing with Gilroy waiting to pounce.
Ulster fly-half Jackson landed his second penalty to put 10 points between the sides after Connacht were undone at the breakdown but the westerners replied with Muldowney's converted 67th-minute try.
Gilroy was penalised for taking Healy out in the air, Carty put the ball into the corner with a great kick and Connacht threw to Willie Faloon at the back.
Second row Muldowney rumbled over after a good drive by the forwards to make it a nervous end to the match for the home supporters.
Pat Lam's side applied pressure near the end, but the Ulster defence held firm to secure the victory which takes them above Leinster into fourth position in the table ahead of the meeting between the sides in Dublin on Saturday 3 January.
Connacht had the consolation of a losing bonus point.
Ulster coach Neil Doak: "It was a frustrating game at times as we were pretty dominant up front but it was important to get the win.
"It's a squad game and the guys who came in did very well - it's good to have plenty of quality in many positions."
Ulster: L Ludik; C Gilroy, D Cave, S Olding, P Nelson, P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, W Herbst, D Tuohy, F vd Merwe, R Diack, C Ross, R Wilson.
Replacements: J Andrew for Wilson (68), D Fitzpatrick for Herbst (56), A O'Connor for van der Merwe (60), S Reidy for Diack (60).
Not used: A Warwick, M Heaney, I Humphreys, M Allen.
Connacht: D Leader; D Poolman, B Aki, D McSharry, M Healy, J Carty, J Cooney; R Loughney, T McCartney, F Bealham, Q Roux, A Muldowny, J Muldoon (capt), W Faloon, G Naoupu.
Replacements: D Hefferenan, D Buckley, R Ah You for Bealham (68), U Dillane, E Masterson, K Marmion for J Cooney (58), C Ronaldson for Carty (69), M Muliaina for D Leader (48), J Cooney for Buckley (77).