A sin-binning for replacement lock Fineen Wycherley and a red card for centre Sammy Arnold against his native province paved the way for what had seemed an unlikely fightback from an Ulster side low on confidence and apparently shell-shocked when the half-time whistle had blown after a powerhouse performance from the visiting pack.
Two maul tries for the returning hooker Niall Scannell and a penalty try for a dominant scrum had left a sold-out stadium reeling in Belfast, piling on the pressure for under-fire director of rugby Les Kiss. Yet it was Munster head coach Johann van Graan nursing the post-match headaches after a second straight derby defeat and a return bus journey to Limerick that required a cortege of ambulances in its wake following injuries to Billy Holland (failed HIA), try scorer Scannell (shoulder and ribs), James Cronin (calf), Tommy O’Donnell (shoulder) and Calvin Nash (hip).
Both provinces had come into this game seeking atonement for poor performances at Christmas, Ulster falling to Connacht at the Sportsground by a record score of 44-16 nine days previously while Munster had six days to put right the errors that led to a 34-24 home defeat by Leister on St Stephen’s Day.
Both van Graan and Kiss had made 11 changes from their selections defeated last week, enforced either by player welfare protocols or injury and illness.
The visitors lost captain Peter O’Mahony, Andrew Conway, Ian Keatley, Dave Kilcoyne, Conor Murray and CJ Stander to the former while Ulster stood down Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale. Their injury list was considerably longer but director of rugby Kiss at least had the comfort of restoring Charles Piutau, Stuart McCloskey and Christian Lealiifano to the backline following the debacle in Galway. Munster, meanwhile, started with both Scannell and Keith Earls for the first time since October.
Scannell had fractured a thumb but returned at hooker while Earls was named at outside centre in a new midfield partnership alongside former Ulster academy product Arnold, moved from 13 to 12 with Rory Scannell rested.
Both sides saw further changes to their named matchday squads with Ulster pressing Darren Cave into service at outside centre in place of Louis Ludik, the latest player to be struck down with an illness running through the squad.
Similarly in the Munster camp, Ronan O’Mahony, set for his first action of the season off the bench having fractured a fibula against Treviso in April, also had his comeback delayed. Munster’s leading try scorer last season was a late withdrawal due to a bug with the outside backs’ replacement role falling to Stephen Fitzgerald.
The way Ulster went about their business in the first half, Munster could have rested many more frontliners because this was a home performance as abject as their away one in the west. The visitors ended the opening 40 minutes 17-0 up and it should have been a bigger margin had JJ Hanrahan not left seven points out there with a penalty and two conversions missed.
Two went narrowly right, the third hooked left and it will have been a relief to the talented but rusty kicker that his side’s third score, a penalty try in the 34th minute no longers require a kick for the extra two points.
That penalty try encapsulated the opening half for Ulster, disjointed with ball in hand, malfunctioning in the lineout, struggling at the breakdown and outmuscled at scrum-time.
Munster, in need of retribution following that chastening home defeat, made hay and it was the forward pack that did the damage. Hooker Scannell enjoyed a dream return, scoring twice off the back of a dominant lineout maul and doing his bit in a powerful tight five to overwhelm the Ulster scrum.
Kiss’s side conceded nine first-half penalties, four of which came at the scrum before the fifth resulted in seven points from the whistle of referee Sean Gallagher as Munster marched the home pack behind their own line for a third time in quick succession.
Even when Ulster did get some go-forward, at the end of the first half, their attacking maul was undone by excellent defence from Munster, No 8 Jack O’Donoghue burrowing through the middle to isolate ball carrier Rob Herring and drive him into touch to bring the half to a merciful close for the home side.
The chances of a turnaround seemed remote but though Munster will have expected a home rally they handed their rivals a leg up with their poor discipline. The omens were not great when Ulster laid siege to their line and scrum-half John Cooney stole under the posts from the side of a ruck in the 50th minute, only for the TMO to spot his flanker Greg Jones making an illegal cleanout on Munster pillar John Ryan.
Wycherley had been introduced midway through the opening half when Holland was withdrawn for a head injury assessment but that had not stopped the Munster pack’s momentum.
Half-time did though and Ulster’s increased intensity at the breakdown after the break saw the reds’ discipline crack, the replacement lock paying the price in 55th minute. A try for Darren Cave quickly followed and it proved a double hammer blow for Munster when Arnold received his marching orders for a high hit on Christian Lealiifano and Gallacher had little choice but to reach for the red card.
Cooney nailed the conversion and playing against 13 men for seven minutes made the most of the two-man advantage with Craig Gilroy popping up unopposed in the right corner to narrow the deficit further in the 61st minute. Even back to 14 men, Munster were being stretched all too easily and it was Gilroy who struck again six minutes before time, his try levelling the game with man of the match Cooney’s conversion pushing his side in front. It was only a two-point lead but Munster were already beaten and when Rod Lyttle burst down the left in the 80th minute it was a bonus-point try in every sense.
C Piutau; C Gilroy, D Cave, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; K McCall (C Black, 41), R Herring - captain, R Ah You (W Herbst, 41); A O’Connor, K Treadwell (R Diack, 75), G Jones, N Timoney, J Deysel (M Rea, 45).
A McBurney, P Marshall, J McPhillips, A Trimble.
S Zebo (B Johnston, 75); C Nash (S Fitzgerald, 40), K Earls, S Arnold, A Wootton; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin (R Loughman, 60), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 52), J Ryan (S Archer, 50); D O’Shea, B Holland – captain (F Wycherley, 23); T O’Donnell (R Copeland, 63), C Cloete, J O’Donoghue.
Sean Gallagher (IRFU)