This encounter was for Munster more akin to the treacherous cobbles of Paris-Roubaix than the smooth, vineyard-lined lanes of Bordeaux but on a day when a draw felt like a win for the hosts - and the end of the road for the visitors - there were always going to be different expectations of this final round of the league campaign.
For Ulster, this was a crunch encounter, a last throw of the dice to reach the playoffs with a bonus-point victory and a hope that Conference B rivals Edinburgh would come unstuck against their old foes Glasgow. Failure to fulfil their own obligations on Saturday afternoon and the end would be nigh before the Scots went toe to toe later that evening.
With a home quarter-final on May 5 bagged a fortnight ago, Munster head coach Johann van Graan saw an opportunity to rest his frontline stars ahead of the return to knockout rugby and provide his fringe members in the squad with a chance to prove they could lift the despair of a Champions Cup semi-final exit six days earlier.
By full-time, it was only Munster who went some way to reaching their objective, though there is still much for the province to do before they can realise their ambition of a first trophy since 2011.
Instead of Ulster returning to Thomond Park this Saturday, it will be Edinburgh, who edged past Conference A table-toppers Glasgow at Murrayfield to secure third place behind B winners Leinster and runners-up Scarlets and book a first visit to the league play-offs since the knockout stages were introduced.
Not that Rory Best’s men didn’t give it a lash, recovering from the concession of a second-minute try from the lively Munster scrum-half Duncan Williams, converted by JJ Hanrahan, to immediately restore parity with a Stuart McCloskey try and then take a 24-14 first-half lead as the Ulster pack ruled the roost and exploited their advantage following the 32nd-minute sin-binning of Robin Copeland. It was Best who led the charge, the Ireland captain touching down twice in Copeland’s absence as Ulster’s maul went into overdrive and three tries by half-time suggested the necessary bonus point would be a formality after the interval.
As it was, Munster got their groove back. With 14 changes from the starting XV which succumbed to Racing 92 in Bordeaux, there were bound to be teething problems from a scratch side captained by hooker Mike Sherry on his 100th appearance but in just his second start of another injury curtailed campaign.
The introduction at the start of the second period of Stephen Archer at tighthead for first-half try-scorer Brian Scott, and Jean Kleyn to the second row was earmarked by Best as the point at which the tide turned in Munster’s favour and indeed Ulster would not trouble the scoreboard again.
Munster dominated after the break, aided by a yellow card for Luke Marshall, and a try from Copeland in the 49th minute, plus a conversion and 68th-minute penalty from Hanrahan tied the game at 24-all.
That left Ulster chasing the game but the chance to extend their league campaign into the play-offs fell short, spurning a kickable penalty to win the game in search of the necessary try bonus-point victory. Johnny McPhillips, Hanrahan’s impressive rival in the Ulster number 10 jersey, had spent the afternoon making his point that his province had no need of either of Leinster’s back-up playmakers Ross Byrne or Joey Carbery and he landed the penalty to touch right on the five-metre line, only to see replacement hooker Rob Herring’s lineout throw gobbled up by Munster’s Gerbrandt Grobler. The game was up. The impressive South African lock had caused Ulster’s lineout problems all afternoon and his intervention at the death was the decisive blow to the visitor’s ambitions, advancing his justifiable claims to a starting berth this weekend.
For van Graan, his team’s second-half efforts were indicative of a collective desire to stake a claim to starting places against Edinburgh.
“I think the most pleasing thing as a coach you know you make calls and it’s disrupting for any team if you make 14 changes but we do believe in our system, we do believe in the bigger picture, we do believe in a dream,” the Munster boss said.
“Obviously the Champions Cup is gone for this year and we are desperate for a trophy we have all bought into a long-term vision for Munster and everybody wants to be part of it so the most pleasing thing is the guys that got the opportunity really played well.
“I thought a lot of individuals stood up and put their hands up for selection next week and it will definitely put pressure on some squad members who had the week off. It just shows that hunger and belief is a massive thing in the game of rugby.”
Van Graan knows only too well that this weekend’s visitors from the Scottish capital will have those same traits as they enter the knockout stages in head coach Richard Cockerill’s first season at the helm. They edged Munster 12-6 at Murrayfield on March 18 and have lost just once in nine league games in 2018. Bouncing back is one thing. Finishing the job quite another.
S Fitzgerald; C Nash, S Arnold, D Goggin, D Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams (J Hart, 56); J Cronin, M Sherry - captain (R Marshall, 56), B Scott (S Archer, h-t); G Grobler, D O’Shea (J Kleyn, h-t); D O’Callaghan, C Oliver (J O’Donoghue, 47), R Copeland.
R Copeland 32-42 mins
J Loughman, B Johnston, S Daly.
L Ludik; C Gilroy (T Bowe, 69), L Marshall, S McCloskey (A Curtis, 29), J Stockdale; J McPhillips, D Shanahan (P Marshall, 45); C Black (A Warwick, 55), R Best - captain (R Herring, 69), R Kane (T O’Toole, 63); A O’Connor, I Henderson (K Treadwell, 22); C Ross, S Reidy, N Timoney (C Henry, 72).
L Marshall 48-58 mins
Ben Whitehouse (Wales)