10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
First half tries from Bryn Cunningham, Tommy Bowe and David Humphreys, who converted all three and added a penalty, helped Ulster beat the Dragons and go back to the top of the Celtic League.
CELTIC LEAGUE: Saturday, March 25
ULSTER 24 NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS 17, Ravenhill (Att: 7,546)
Scorers: Ulster: Tries: Bryn Cunningham, Tommy Bowe, David Humphreys; Cons: Humphreys 3; Pen: Humphreys
Dragons: Steve Jones, Hal Luscombe; Cons: Craig Warlow 2; Pen: Warlow
Mark McCall's Ulster side sit three points clear of second-placed Leinster, who had a "free" weekend, with five games remaining in the 2005/06 League.
In only the province's third outing in Belfast since January 27, Ulster should really have clocked up a bonus point with Cunningham (12 minutes), Bowe (16) and Humphreys (21) all touching down in the early stages. But the visitors' defence was resolute in the second half and they mustered the only score of the second 40 - a converted try by Wales centre Hal Luscombe (79).
But Ulster's fifth win on the trot did come at a price - New Zealand centre Paul Steinmetz sustained a depressed fracture of his cheekbone 28 minutes in, and the injury is likely to keep him out for the rest of the season. Steinmetz will be operated on in the coming week.
Having failed to earn game-time during the RBS 6 Nations, out-half Humphreys was clearly keyed up for it, and once again he proved to be the main man for the title chasers, weighing in with 14 points.
The hosts powered into a 24-10 half-time lead, but their efforts waned after the break and they could not get in for a bonus point try despite two yellow cards for scrum half Gareth Baber and prop Adam Black of the Dragons.
Paul Turner's side took the early advantage with a penalty from out-half Craig Warlow but Ulster soon rallied and deservedly notched the first try of the game when a turnover, snaffled by man of the match Isaac Boss, led to Humpreys feeding Cunningham for a sprint over the line. Humphreys added the conversion before an attacking lineout soon produced the second try.
After a catch and drive from Justin Harrison, Humphreys put centre Jonny Bell through a gap in the midfield and he found Tommy Bowe, who skipped in under the posts for his seventh League touchdown this season - confirming him as the competition's top try scorer. Dragons skipper Jason Forster is one behind him on six.
Another conversion from Humphreys took Ulster's lead to 14-3. The Dragons refused to let the game get away from them and when a Humphreys clearance was charged down on 18 minutes, the Welsh region recycled before hooker Steve Jones went over in the corner.
Warlow converted Humphreys soon extended Ulster's advantage, chipping over the top of the on-rushing defence before chasing the ball and sliding over the line for his second try of the campaign. Humphreys punished a Jones infringement in injury-time to kick his only penalty for a 24-10 buffer at the interval.
Ulster should have scored through flanker Neil Best on the restart, but the Irish international was just held up over the line. With Baber and Black both spending 10 minutes in the bin, Ulster went close again when Matt McCullough and Roger Wilson had attacks repelled, metres from the visitors' line.
The final quarter was a forgettable one. Neither side looked like making a breakthrough, but up popped Ceri Sweeney with a minute remaining to put Luscombe over for a try. Warlow smacked over the difficult conversion to secure a losing bonus point for the trip back home.ULSTER: Bryn Cunningham; Tommy Bowe, Jonny Bell, Paul Steinmetz, Andrew Maxwell; David Humphreys, Isaac Boss; Bryan Young, Rory Best, Simon Best (capt), Justin Harrison, Matt McCullough, Neil Best, Stephen Ferris, Roger Wilson.
Replacements used: Ryan Caldwell for McCullough (27-34 mins), Kevin Maggs for Steinmetz (28), Justin Fitzpatrick for Young (49), Ryan Caldwell for Ferris, Kieran Campbell for Boss (both 67), Adam Larkin for Maggs (80). Not used: Neil McMillan.
DRAGONS: Aled Thomas; Nathan Brew, Hal Luscombe, Ceri Sweeney, Richard Fussell; Craig Warlow, Gareth Baber; Adam Black, Steve Jones, Rhys Thomas, Andrew Hall, Peter Sidoli, Jamie Ringer, Jason Forster (capt), Rhys Oakley.
Replacements used: Luke Charteris for Hall, Shawn Van Rensburg for Ringer (51), David Maddocks for Van Rensburg (57), Chris Anthony for Thomas (60), Jon Bryant for Fussell, James Ireland for Baber (both 74), Andrew Brown for Jones (80).
Sin Bin: G Baber (Dragons) (44 mins), A Black (Dragons) (54)
Referee: Malcolm Changleng (Scotland)