It may not have been pretty but Ulster did enough to emerge as 22-18 winners over Pool 4 rivals Bath, with Stephen Ferris and young centre Nevin Spence among their standout performers.
Ulster won the battle of the former Heineken Cup champions at Ravenhill and as they overcame a nightmare start to keep in the running to reach the last-eight.
Out-half Ian Humphreys landed five penalties for Ulster but it was their heroic pack, some excellent work by the backs and Bath’s spiralling error count that got them over the finish line.
Bath had a touch of revenge to take care of, as they went down to the Ulstermen 26-12 at Ravenhill last year which signalled a miserable Heineken Cup campaign.
And the visitors had to draft in England international Olly Barkley from the bench to make his 200th appearance for them as initial selection Shontayne Hape became a father.
Ulster, despite finishing second behind Stade Francais last season, also failed to qualify for the knockout stages and, in almost a winner-takes-all situation at Ravenhill, they were fired up to get as many points as possible to have a chance of going through this time.
Bath soon quietened the home crowd. Barkley put over the first penalty of the match and Ulster were stung by an intercept try just as they looked to score themselves.
Centre Paddy Wallace fed tigerish flanker Stephen Ferris only for him to be brought back close to the Bath try-line. Ulster hammered away at close range but, when Humphreys threw a pass out on the wide left, the visitors’ full-back Jack Cuthbert intercepted.
Despite the attentions of former Bath winger Simon Danielli, Cuthbert just got home to touch down near the posts, making Barkley’s conversion a comfortable one.
Humphreys booted a penalty as Ulster, through some stern work by their pack, fought back, causing Bath to make countless mistakes.
That good work was undone when full-back Adam D’Arcy failed to deal with a high ball, and England captain Lewis Moody managed to grasp it and fend off Nigel Brady on an impressive run to the line.
By half-time, though, Ulster were right back in it as Bath’s penalty count went into double figures and loosehead prop David Flatman was sin-binned for a high tackle.
The second intercept try of the game saw Ulster number 8 Pedrie Wannenburg grab a loose pass by Simon Taylor on halfway and race over to score from 40 metres out.
Humphreys converted, and with a second successful penalty, Brian McLaughlin’s men went into the break just two points down at 15-13.
Barkley soon restored his side’s five-point lead, but Ulster battered Bath and hit back with two more penalties to take a 19-18 advantage.
It was just what Ulster deserved for their all-round efforts and when Bath infringed in front of their posts, Humphreys converted his fifth penalty of the afternoon.
Nevin Spence, the 20-year-old making his full Heineken Cup debut, was elusive with ball in hand, probed out wide on a couple of occasions and put in some crucial tackles in midfield.
And Ferris was in outstanding form up front, carrying with great intent and giving Ulster momentum by getting over the gainline time and again.
Bath battled for another try but were met by a white-shirted defensive wall, which was summed up by Andrew Trimble’s solid challenge on the advancing Matt Banahan in the dying seconds.
With Italian newcomers Aironi pulling off a shock home victory over Biarritz Olympique, Pool 4 is now wide open and next Saturday’s return fixture at the Recreation Ground is a hugely important won for Ulster.
Speaking afterwards, Brian McLaughlin said: “There were a lot of mistakes in the first half but you can’t fault the effort. The attitude the guys had on the field today was brilliant.
“You only have to look at the tackle of Andrew Trimble in the last play of the game to show what this competition means to us.
“Everyone fought tooth and nail for the pride of Ulster but we have to do the exact same thing again next week.”