Tonight in south-east Wales Ulster were made to work hard for their sixth consecutive Guinness PRO12 victory, grinding out a 10-point win over a battling Newport Gwent Dragons side to keep their noses just in front of the Scarlets in fourth place.
Tries from Craig Gilroy, Jared Payne and John Andrew secured the win to set up Les Kiss' side on 61 points with four games remaining, three points ahead of the Llanelli-based outfit whose run-in in the quest for a play-off place is, on paper at least, an easier one than Ulster's.
Ulster's newest centurion Luke Marshall reached his personal milestone in a starting XV counting four changes from the record-breaking victory over Zebre, with centre partner Darren Cave the only new addition to a stellar backline featuring Payne at full-back, Gilroy and Charles Piutau on the wings, and the half-back tandem of Stuart Olding and Ruan Pienaar.
Andy Warwick was the sole change to the front row as he lined up beside captain Rob Herring and tighthead Wiehahn Herbst, while Kieran Treadwell and Alan O'Connor retained their places in the second row. Iain Henderson came straight back from Six Nations duty into first-team action at blindside flanker, with Chris Henry at openside and Sean Reidy replacing the injured Marcell Coetzee at Number Eight.
Ulster enjoyed the better of the first half but on a patchy Rodney Parade pitch struggled to carve out as many scoring opportunities as they would have hoped.
Dragons, placed tenth in the standings above only Zebre and Benetton Treviso, did well to soak up five minutes of intense Ulster pressure without concession, but had no response to Pienaar's vision on seven minutes as the scrum-half chipped on perfectly for Gilroy to outpace Rhys Buckley and kick on for the try.
Angus O'Brien soon clawed back three points courtesy of a well-struck penalty, and once Ulster had gamely defended some patient Dragons possession, with the injured Herbst making way for Rodney Ah You on 20 minutes, a pacy break from Pienaar, Payne and Reidy got the visitors deep into opposition territory before the ball was surrendered through a poor lineout put-in.
Buckley soon emulated Herring's crooked throw, however, and as Ulster took back control Pienaar added a central penalty on 34 minutes to send his side off seven points to the good at the break, as Carl Meyer's stoppage-time effort from long distance sailed just wide of the posts.
Half-Time Score Dragons 3 Ulster 10
A surprisingly rapid break from Treadwell set the tone for a higher-tempo second half, the enormous lock outstripping four chasers before being brought to ground.
Dragons got a shot in the arm moments later, however, when a marginal call saw Gilroy yellow-carded for an adjudged deliberate knock-on as he attempted to intercept as Dragons went wide deep in the Ulster '22'.
Lock Rynard Landman duly rumbled over from the resulting rolling maul and, once O'Brien's conversion had restored parity, Kiss introduced Paddy Jackson into the fray, in place of Cave with Olding moving back to centre.
The change saw Ulster crank up the intensity of their game, and when Payne ghosted through from Olding's flat pass on 58 minutes for his second try in as many games it was fully deserved, despite some protestations of obstruction from the Dragons.
Jackson's conversion heralded Gilroy's return to the field, but an accidental boot to the face soon spelled the end of Pienaar's evening, and his replacement Paul Marshall was quickly in the spotlight for the wrong reasons as his attempted clearance five metres from home was charged down and grounded by Ollie Griffiths.
O'Brien converted to make it 17 - 17, but with 10 minutes still on the clock Ulster showed discipline in picking their moment, eventually forcing a penalty on 74 minutes, which Jackson wisely put between the posts to re-establish a slender lead.
Further drama ensued as Ah You found himself red-carded by referee Mike Adamson for a no-arms tackle on Meyer which appeared to strike the full-back to the head, but smart game management from Ulster kept play deep in Dragons territory for the final five minutes - replacement hooker Andrew even touching down from a forceful rolling maul in the dying seconds.
Ulster enjoy a weekend off before the Guinness PRO12 resumes on Friday 7 April with the visit of the Cardiff Blues to Kingspan Stadium.
Newport Gwent Dragons (15 - 9) Carl Meyer; Adam Hughes, Tyler Morgan, Sam Beard, Tom Prydie; Angus O'Brien, Charlie Davies
(1 - 8) Sam Hobbs, Rhys Buckley, Brok Harris, Nick Crosswell, Rynard Landman, Ollie Griffiths, Nic Cudd, Lewis Evans (c)
Replacements (16 - 23) Darran Harris, Phil Price, Lloyd Fairbrother, Matthew Screech, Harrison Keddie, Sarel Pretorious, Dorian Jones, Adam Warren.
Ulster (15 - 9) Jared Payne; Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Charles Piutau; Stuart Olding, Ruan Pienaar
(1 - 8) Andy Warwick, Rob Herring (c), Wiehahn Herbst, Kieran Treadwell, Alan O'Connor, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy
Replacements (16 - 23) John Andrew, Callum Black, Rodney Ah You, Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Jacob Stockdale.