Ulster chose the wrong time to put in their most disjointed display of the season as London Irish ran four tries past them for an entertaining 29-13 win at the Madejski Stadium.
HEINEKEN CUP: POOL 5: Saturday, December 9
LONDON IRISH 29 ULSTER 13, Madejski Stadium (Att: 14,675)
Scorers: London Irish: Tries: Juan Leguizamon, Mike Catt, Shane Geraghty, Sailosi Tagicakibau; Cons: Geraghty 3; Pen: Barry Everitt
Ulster: Try: Paul Steinmetz; Con: David Humphreys; Pens: Humphreys 2
Ulster still have a mathematical chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals but it seems almost certain the monkey of not having made the Heineken Cup's knockout stages since 1999 will remain on their backs.
The good work of October's opening win over Toulouse has been undone by defeats for Mark McCall's men in Llanelli and Reading. They are bottom of Pool 5, sitting on five points, with the Llanelli Scarlets blazing a trail on 13 points at the top.
Despite the vocal presence of some 5,000 travelling supporters, and much credit goes to the Ulster fans for their backing throughout, McCall's side could not raise their game against the fired-up Exiles.
The handling errors were too often, the tackling and discipline poor and Ulster's game plan simply fell away as 'Irish made the most of their chances, none more so than their 35-year-old centre and captain Mike Catt.
The England veteran pulled the strings in midfield and scored a wonderfully opportunistic try in the first half.
Seeking to end a run of eight straight Heineken Cup defeats on English soil, Ulster soaked up some early pressure from the hosts to go 3-0 in front on the quarter-hour - David Humphreys landed his first of two penalties.
'Irish fired right back with two tries in the space of three minutes. Catt and Seilala Mapusua combined in midfield to send Argentinian back rower Juan Leguizamon through for the home side's opener on 17 minutes.
Out-half Shane Geraghty converted and he also added the extras to Catt's 20th-minute score.
'Irish's biggest crowd of the season leapt to their feat as Geraghty's chip over the top caught the Ulster defence too flat. Catt hacked the loose ball on and gobbled up the high bouncing ball to dive in under the posts.
14-3 down, Ulster needed to spark into life but unfortunately their Ireland wingers Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, who are both just back from hamstring injuries, just could not get into the game.
A knock on here, an offside there, it was far from pretty viewing but Humphreys did cut the gap with a 32nd-minute penalty, teed up by a Paul Steinmetz interception.
Leguizamon was left scratching his head when he went to dive in for his second try. Picking off the back off a scrum, the Pumas number eight crossed what he thought was the Ulster try line - it was in fact the markings for Reading FC's six-yard box.
Matters did improve for Ulster as the half wore on - in first half injury-time, Brian Smith's hosts had two players sin-binned - Delon Armitage walked for a high tackle on his opposite number Bryn Cunningham and former Ireland winger Justin Bishop saw yellow for a foot trip on Isaac Boss.
Humphreys missed a penalty chance in between but he made amends, after 'Irish had gone down to 13 men, when he spun a pass out for Steinmetz to touch down out on the left. Humphreys converted for a 14-13 half-time score line.
...Ulster's Neil Best puts in a big hit on London Irish full-back Delon Armitage...
Game on, you would have thought, but Ulster failed to make the most of the numerical advantage for the early minutes of the second half, with the hosts' blitz defence was at its frustrating best. The momentum was gone.
Mention must be given to ex-Leinster lock Bob Casey who controlled the 'Irish set pieces to aplomb and worked his socks off in the loose.
A second penalty miss followed from the off colour Humphreys and his afternoon worsened on 62 minutes when the lively Geraghty, who played for Ireland Youths before switching his allegiance to England, cut through a gap between Humphreys and Paddy Wallace to score 'Irish's third try.
Former Ireland 'A' out-half Barry Everitt then came on to replace Geraghty and he fired over an 80th-minute penalty to put the result beyond any doubt at 24-13.
Ulster's feint hopes of securing a losing bonus point were dashed in injury-time when Armitage fed Samoan winger Sailosi Tagicakibau and he romped over down the left flank.
Devastated and a little shellshocked, the Ulster squad grabbed a quick flight home to Belfast, no doubt already plotting their revenge for next Friday at fortress Ravenhill.
...Disappointed Ulster duo Andrew Trimble and Roger Wilson after the final whistle...
TIME LINE: 13 minutes - Ulster penalty: David Humphreys - 0-3; 17 mins - London Irish try: Juan Leguizamon - 5-3; conversion: Shane Geraghty - 7-3; 20 mins - London Irish try: Mike Catt - 12-3; conversion: Shane Geraghty - 14-3; 32 mins - Ulster penalty: David Humphreys - 14-6; 40 mins - London Irish yellow card: Delon Armitage; 40+2 mins - London Irish yellow card: Justin Bishop; 40+3 mins - Ulster try: Paul Steinmetz - 14-11; conversion: David Humphreys - 14-13; Half-time - London Irish 14 Ulster 13; 62 mins - London Irish try: Shane Geraghty - 19-13; conversion: Shane Geraghty - 21-13; 80 mins - London Irish penalty: Barry Everitt - 24-13; 80+5 mins - London Irish try: Sailosi Tagicakibau - 29-13; conversion: missed by Barry Everitt; Full-time - London Irish 29 Ulster 13
LONDON IRISH: Delon Armitage; Justin Bishop, Seilala Mapusua, Mike Catt (capt), Sailosi Tagicakibau; Shane Geraghty, Paul Hodgson; Neal Hatley, Robbie Russell, Tonga Lea'aetoa, Nick Kennedy, Bob Casey, Kieran Roche, Steffon Armitage, Juan Leguizamon.
Replacements used: Michael Collins for Russell, Danie Coetzee for Hatley (both 48 mins), Phil Murphy for Roche (56), Faan Rautenbach for Lea'aetoa (61), Gonzalo Tiesi for Catt, Barry Everitt for Geraghty (both 74), James Hudson for Kennedy (77).
ULSTER: Bryn Cunningham; Tommy Bowe, Paul Steinmetz, Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble; David Humphreys, Isaac Boss; Bryan Young, Rory Best, Simon Best (capt), Justin Harrison, Matt McCullough, Neil Best, Kieron Dawson, Roger Wilson.
Replacements used: Tim Barker for McCullough (blood, 46-57 mins), Justin Fitzpatrick for Young (61), Mark Bartholomeusz for Cunningham (64), Neil McMillan for Dawson (74), Not used: Paul Shields, Kieran Campbell, Kevin Maggs.
Heineken Cup man of the match: Mike Catt (London Irish)
Referee: Joel Jutge (France)