Ulster fielded their strongest side possible, they were up for the game and the famous old ground was packed to the rafters, ensuring the atmosphere was first class on a brutally cold night.
True to expectation, Ulster won the game but with a performance far from overwhelming. Scottish winger Simon Danielli said as much when admitting that “while it is always good to beat Munster, it is not really the happy changing room that we thought it would be. There were no excuses in terms of conditions, just a case of not playing as well as we should”.
It would have been an entirely different game had Munster fielded even 50% of their main forward unit. As it was, and in spite of taking a serious mauling in the set scrums, they enjoyed considerable territorial supremacy and it was their failure to gain quick, useable possession that cost them a rare Ravenhill victory.
“I thought the effort and application were excellent,” said coach Tony McGahan. “To come up here against a full-strength Ulster side that had been travelling very well this week and play as we did was outstanding.
“I thought we worked hard enough to get the result but execution let us down on a few occasions and apart from that spell in the first half when we conceded two soft tries, the overall performance was very satisfactory.”
Neither Munster prop, Tony Buckley nor Wian du Preez, or indeed those behind them, will have very happy memories of the game and they were taken to the cleaners by Tom Court – who won’t have done his Irish team prospects any harm – and the formidable Springbok, BJ Botha.
They were pushed off one ball entirely at a crucial scrummage in the Ulster 22 late as they were going all out in search of a seven-pointer.
Otherwise, Peter Stringer was trying to deal with a retreating scrum and the ball shooting out all over the place. On the evidence of this game, John Hayes remains a key figure for Munster and Ireland while one hopes Marcus Horan also returns fully fit and refreshed.
Otherwise Munster acquitted themselves extremely well. Mick O’Driscoll stole a few Ulster throws at the lineout, an area where Donnacha Ryan also did his share while making a serious impact in open play. It was one of the Tipperary man’s best games for some time and there was also much to admire in the ever improving hooker Damien Varley and James Coughlan at number eight. Niall Ronan departed with a “dead leg” which shouldn’t impair his activity for very long.
The Munster backs looked full of running and Ian Dowling on the left wing certainly put his hand up with a splendid 80-minute contribution. Jean de Villiers scored his third try in as many matches to prove he is increasingly becoming a vital figure and Stringer and Paul Warwick made the best of an inconsistent supply from their hard-pressed forward colleagues.
It was little wonder, then, that Ulster weren’t getting carried away with the result. They may have re-ignited their Magners League challenge and are still in contention in their Heineken Cup pool, but a repeat of this kind of performance will quickly see them vanish without sight in both competitions.
Andrew Trimble was voted man of the match without doing anything special and the scrummage was the area that most pleased coach Brian McLaughlin.
Mick O’Driscoll looked set to give Munster the ideal start only to have the ball dashed from his grasp as he went to touch down between the posts after four minutes. The visitors continued to attack but replacement referee Dudley Phillips saw fit to ping them for holding four times in the Ulster 22. They then strayed offside close to their own posts and Ian Humphreys popped over the penalty.
The game turned in Ulster’s favour when Danielli twice in four minutes was allowed to race down the left wing for two well-taken but soft tries. Now 15-0 ahead, Ulster were expected to take the game by the scruff of the neck but Munster never allowed that to happen.
Ulster were unfortunate to concede a try to de Villiers after Humphreys had done well to rip the ball off O’Driscoll but he then lost possession and the Springbok struck to score at the posts. Warwick converted and kicked a penalty to leave only five points between them at the break. Oddly enough, the second half ended scoreless, Warwick hitting the post with a 35m penalty after 65 minutes.
Even then, Ulster knocked on but Munster couldn’t make anything of the resultant scrum. And frustration was again their lot when Ryan won a 5m lineout in the dying seconds but possession was lost forward in the drive. Munster have lost ground in the race for the top four but will be near full strength against Scarlets at Musgrave Park on Sunday when they should get their challenge back on track.
ULSTER: J Smith; A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, I Boss; T Court, N Brady, BJ Botha, D Tuohy, E O’Donoghue, S Ferris, C Henry, W Faloon.
Replacements: TJ Anderson for Faloon, ht; T Nagusa for Wallace, 53; A Kyriacou for Brady, 56; N O’Connor for Humphreys, 62.
MUNSTER: D Hurley; D Howlett, L Mafi, J de Villiers, I Dowling; P Warwick, P Stringer; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley; M O’Driscoll, D Ryan; B Holland, N Ronan, J Coughlan.
Replacements: T O’Donnell for Ronan, 26; S Archer for Buckley, P O’Mahony for Coughlan, both 74.
Referee: Dudley Phillips (IRFU).