Ulster focus turns to Leinster after securing home quarter-final spot with win over Bulls in URC
Stewart hat-trick helps Ulster secure bonus point win over Bulls and home URC quarter-final
A hat-trick of tries from hooker Tom Stewart helped Ulster to a 32-23 bonus point comeback win over the Bulls in Belfast, securing a home quarter-final in the United Rugby Championship.
Returning Ulster winger Robert Baloucoune and Tom Stewart touched down in the first half but tries from Springbok full-back Kurt-Lee Arendse as well as Zak Burger and Chris Smith left Ulster trailing 20-12 at half-time.
Player of the Match Stewart completed his hat-trick in the second-half and Nathan Doak and John Cooney added to Ulster's tally, kicking 12 points between them as Ulster ground out the bonus point win.
The comeback victory now makes it three United Rugby Championship wins in-a-row for Dan McFarland's side who are now putting pressure on second-placed DHL Stormers ahead of the play-offs, with both sides targeting a potential home semi-final should they get there.
Stewart said Ulster had to work hard for their win following a disjointed first-half performance as the side now turn their attention towards a crucial knockout game with Leinster in the Champions Cup in Dublin this weekend.
"It was good. First half we were a bit rusty but it's good to be back home in front of the Kingspan crowd," he said.
"The players knew we weren't good enough in the first half and we needed to come out in the second. We turned it around and have something to work off.
"We have talked about it for a while. It's the business end of the season but we were focused on going out and playing our own game.
"Now we turn our sights to Leinster in the Champions Cup which is a massive game. We can't wait."
Ulster got off to the perfect start, with Lowry making a line-break following a well-executed strike move off a lineout before giving the pass to Baloucoune who sprinted over to finish in the corner.
The visitors were not rattled by that early setback as they started to take control, probing Ulster's defence and dominating territory. A Bulls try looked inevitable.
Indeed, with 18 minutes on the clock, Canan Moodie broke through the stretched Ulster defensive line and supplied Arendse who scampered over the try-line. Smith converted to add to his earlier penalty and put Bulls 10-5 ahead.
Ulster hit back in familiar fashion, with Tom Stewart steering Ulster's lineout maul and using it as his launchpad to propel himself over from close-range. Doak added the extras to give his side a brief lead.
The back-and-forth nature of the game continued as the Bulls pack took a more direct approach, powering towards the Ulster line before scrum-half Burger sniped over from close range.
Smith converted and added a long-range penalty on the stroke of half-time to give the Bulls an eight-point lead at the break.
There was a momentum shift as Bulls player Elrigh Louw shown a yellow card for repeated infringements at the start of the second-half.
Minutes later, Stewart once again utilised the Ulster lineout maul to burrow over for his second try of the evening.
The Bulls fought bravely back into the game with a spell of possession deep in the Ulster half, but the host's defence stood firm.
Having worked the ball back up the pitch, Stewart completed his hat-trick with a determined finish through a crowd of bodies which Doak converted to give his side a 26-20 lead.
Smith's third penalty just after the hour mark cut Ulster's lead to three points but Doak's 71st-minute penalty made it 29-23 to the home team and Cooney kicked a last-minute penalty to round off the victory and deny the visitors a losing bonus point.