Munster 24 Ulster 10
Ulster lost for the first time in this season’s RaboDirect PRO12 as Munster came out on top in a lacklustre derby match at Thomond Park.
Fielding a largely second string selection, the league leaders’ 11-match winning streak was ended by a Munster side that broke clear in the second half.
Starved of territory for long stretches of a pedestrian first period, a late push yielded a penalty try for Munster who went to the break 10-3 in front.
The gap was out to 14 points when Simon Zebo split the defence five minutes after the break, and Peter O’Mahony soon crashed over for the third try.
But Munster were unable to fashion a fourth for the bonus point, and Ulster gained a late consolation score when replacement Ali Birch finished off a fine three-man move.
Ulster boss Mark Anscombe made 11 personnel changes to the team that beat Leinster in impressive fashion. Indeed, he had fifteen players involved who played for Ulster Ravens in the British & Irish Cup recently.
The IRFU player management programme sidelined a number of Ireland internationals for this interprovincial clash, although Munster looked decidedly more settled with Zebo, O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Ronan O’Gara back on duty.
Munster’s powerful front five got the upper hand in the game’s opening scrum, teeing up a third minute penalty which out-half Ian Keatley comfortable slotted.
His opposite number Niall O’Connor sent a drop goal attempt wide as Ulster beat a path towards the hosts’ 22, and Craig Gilroy was involved twice as they pressed with ball in hand.
With Murray caught offside, O’Connor had a chance to open his side’s account but his poorly struck 14th-minute penalty missed the target.
As a rain shower grew heavier, Luke Marshall’s raid down the right wing was a rare moment of attacking quality amid a spell of aimless kicking.
Both sides were guilty of coughing up possession, Damien Varley’s side entry at a midfield ruck allowing O’Connor to kick the Ulstermen level.
The slippery ball made for plenty of turnovers and Munster had a real let-off when Ulster prop Adam Macklin spilt a pass, blowing a three-on-one overlap.
The match suddenly sparked into life as Keatley darted away from O’Connor and Luke Marshall, Denis Hurley was then stopped short of the line and man-of-the-match Tommy O’Donnell was also held up.
The Munster forwards – with BJ Botha to the fore – hammered away through a series of five-metre scrums, and the pressure eventually told as referee Alain Rolland awarded a 34th minute penalty try.
Keatley converted and Ulster came under further pressure after scrum half Paul Marshall saw yellow for ’unnecessary use of the boot’ on Donncha O’Callaghan at a ruck.
O’Connor stepped in to play scrum half while Marshall was off, and just before his return Zebo struck for the hosts’ second try.
Fed in midfield, Zebo sauntered through an ominous gap with Lewis Stevenson caught for pace and the covering Adam D’Arcy unable to catch the Munster winger as he glided in by the posts.
Keatley added the extras for a 17-3 scoreline and five minutes later, O’Mahony bounced off Luke Marshall’s tackle and with support from O’Donnell, muscled over on a close range drive.
Keatley converted and soon switched to inside centre with veteran replacement O’Gara filling the out-half role.
Ulster also sent on some fresh legs, including Ulster Under-20 out-half Stuart Olding, and Birch, their replacement flanker, spearheaded a lively counter attack from deep.
Luke Marshall continued to pose problems with some strong carries, but Munster had the game within their grasp if not the bonus point.
It never came and although the result sees Munster now just a point behind the second-placed Scarlets and ten behind front-running Ulster, they will be frustrated by how the finished this derby tie.
Ulster’s replacement scrum half Michael Heaney opened up space with a snappy injury-time break. His flicked pass inside reached Robbie Diack, who fed the onrushing Birch for a well worked try which Olding converted with the last kick.