Ulster pulled off a famous Heineken Cup victory at the Recreation Ground, their first in England, but just failed to qualify from Pool 4. Brian McLaughlin’s men were pipped to top spot by Stade Francais, who notched a crucial losing bonus point away to Edinburgh.
Tries from Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave and Paddy Wallace made it a miserable exit from the competition for Bath who had former England lock Danny Grewcock sent off in the 32nd minute.
While Bath, champions in 1998, finished bottom of the pool with just one victory, Ulster just missed out on a quarter-final place as they failed to a fourth try for a bonus point.
A losing bonus point for Stade Francais in their final match away to Edinburgh was enough to put the Parisians through.
Ulster’s 22-year-old out-half Niall O’Connor opened the scoring on six minutes after Bath fell offside defending their 22 from a rapid counter-attack by flanker David Pollock and hooker Nigel Brady.
Almost from the restart, Fijian international Nicky Little had a chance to pull Bath level but struck the post from 35 metres and the ball was cleared.
Ulster continued their bright start, setting up position in the Bath 22 with a clever kick through by Cave. His centre partner Wallace then wriggled through a gap to threaten the Bath line but Ulster knocked on from the ensuing ruck.
Bath found themselves under needless pressure when the pack were penalised en masse for gathering too slowly for a lineout.
Ulster worked the ball to big flanker Stephen Ferris who drove into the Bath defence, setting up a ruck from which Julian Salvi was penalised. O’Connor made it 6-0 from in front of the posts with 19 minutes gone.
Ulster had made all the running in the first quarter but Bath snatched the lead almost straight away as Brian McLaughlin’s side failed to gather the restart and the ball was moved quickly through the hands for Joe Maddock to send England winger Matt Banahan in at the corner. Little converted from the touchline.
Little conjured an excellent kick out of hand to force Ulster into their own 22 but the pumped-up province mauled their way out of danger from the lineout.
With the Ulster lineout functioning well and O’Connor now finding his range with his own tactical kicks, the visitors soon returned to the attack.
On the half-hour Bath found themselves under pressure again and Matt Carraro was penalised for diving in at the side of a ruck. O’Connor chose to chip to the corner rather than the posts and Ulster turned up the pressure again with a catch and drive.
As a ruck broke up on 32 minutes, referee Jerome Garces called Grewcock over and showed him the red card. TV replays showed that he had stamped on Ferris’ outstretched arm after the 2009 Lion had held his foot.
O’Connor kicked the resulting penalty and Bath held out until half-time. But Ulster scored immediately after the break and what a try it was.
Simon Danielli fielded a kick on his own 22 and made ground before linking with Trimble who set off on a superb 65-metre run to the Bath line, deceiving Little with a clever change of pace before touching down.
Seven minutes later Danielli was the creator again, setting off on an 80-metre charge of his own before offloading to Cave for a try that had the travelling Ulster fans on their feet. This time O’Connor had no difficulty with the conversion.
Little pulled back three points with a penalty at the other end but Bath’s efforts to get back into the game were increasingly frantic.
Instead it was Ulster who wrapped things up shortly before time when Wallace wriggled through under the posts.
But it was not enough to seal a quarter-final spot, although the men in white may yet gain a place in the last-eight of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Speaking after Ulster’s first ever European win on English soil, head coach McLaughlin said: “It’s a monkey off our back. Today we are reflecting on the fact that we have won our first game in England. It’s a great win from our point of view.
“We came out at half-time knowing that if we could turn the screw, with Bath down to 14 men, we had a good chance.
“Bath came back really well and put our defence under ferocious pressure and we couldn’t seem to get our hands on the ball.”