Ulster off to great start to the New Year with win over Munster

On a night when personal rivalries were under scrutiny, Ulster won the individual and collective battles against Munster to stretch their unbeaten home record at Kingspan Stadium to 19 games.

Ulster off to great start to the New Year with win over Munster

Ulster 38 - Munster17

On a night when personal rivalries were under scrutiny, Ulster won the individual and collective battles against Munster to stretch their unbeaten home record at Kingspan Stadium to 19 games.

Not since Connacht in October 2018 have cheers been heard in the away dressing-room in Belfast and Ulster rounded off a good festive inter-pro season of PRO14 action with another bonus-point win, to add to the five-point haul secured at home against Connacht last week.

With their Champions Cup campaign on the line next Sunday in a must-win game away to Racing 92, this was not the result nor the performance that Munster needed.

Despie Shane Daly's early try, Munster were badly out-gunned here as they slip to second place in Conference B. First-half tries from John Cooney and Robert Balacoune were followed by Matty Rea, Stuart McCloskey and a confidence-boosting first of the season for Jacob Stockdale.

With scratch sides fielded so often in the festive inter-pros, the games can disappoint and frustrate but no-one could complain about this one.

Both sides fielded strong line-ups and were itching to lock horns from the first minute.

The head-to-heads were obvious, Andrew Conway v Jacob Stockdale, Joey Carbery v Billy Burns, Niall Scannell v Rob Herring among them but the rising rivalry dominating the build-up was Conor Murray v John Cooney for the looming battle for the Ireland number nine shirt.

Cooney has been one of the standout performers this season, not just on these shores but in Europe, and he was keen to remind Murray of that from the off.

He scored 12 of Ulster's first-half points which included his eighth try in 14 games with Ulster leading 17-10 at the interval.

It was the visitors however who landed the first blow. Fullback Shane Daly finding a soft spot between Rob Balacoune and Stu McCloskey and a couple of rolls on the deck later, and he was in for the opening try after 10 minutes. Carbery converted.

Ulster had little territory in the first 15 minutes and made the right call in kicking a penalty between the posts to get the scoreboard moving.

It wasn't long before Cooney stamped his authority on the game. Will Addison gathered the garryowen and the ball was moved quickly through the hands to Stockdale who made solid yards out wide.

Munster didn't have enough numbers on the blindside and when Stockdale slipped the ball inside to Cooney, the scrum-half showed great appreciation of space. He sensed Keith Earls was coming over to cover and just changed direction, stepping inside him and steaming in under the posts.

It was all Ulster now. The line beckoned for Addison, McCloskey and Balacoune, chances came and went before the latter did get in five minutes before the break.

From the base of a ruck Cooney skipped out Burns and arrowed a pass back to Luke Marshall who sent a looping pass over the top out wide to Balacoune. With Earls nowhere to be seen, he skated in.

Cooney, unerring from conversions through these inter-pros, nailed another one to stretch the lead to 17-7.

Munster were struggling to gain traction in the game and captain Peter O'Mahony made the right call telling Carbery to go for the posts rather than opt for a lineout. They needed to stop the flow of 17 unanswered points and did so, at least making it a one-score game at the interval trailing by 17-10.

Ulster seized momentum again straight after the restart, flanker Matty Rea – who chose a good night to produce possibly one of his best performances - winning a lineout and then finishing the move with a rampaging run to score Ulster's third try.

It left Ulster with a full 37 minutes to chase the bonus point, and they only needed another 12.

Another lineout, another maul forcing Munster to take backward steps, another great carry from Sean Reidy and Ulster were over, McCloskey dotting down from close range.

With the bonus point in the bag, the only thing missing for Ulster was a long-overdue first try of the season for Jacob Stockdale.

Carbery put it on a plate for him, throwing a loose pass out to Sam Arnold which the big winger intercepted well inside his own half. Once he went through the gears there was no catching him and he gleefully dived over for a confidence-boosting score at exactly the right time.

Niall Scannell got over in the corner for a consolation try for Munster. Both sides finished with 14 players when first Chris Cloete and then Ulster prop Kyle McCall were sin-binned late on.

Scorers for Ulster – Tries: Cooney, Balacoune, Rea, McCloskey, Stockdale; Cons: Cooney 5; Pens: Cooney;

Scorers for Munster – Tries: Daly, N Scannell; Cons: Carbery 2; Pen: Carbery

Ulster:

W Addison; R Balacoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor, I Henderson; M Rea, S Reidy, N Timoney

Replacements: J Andrew, K McCall, T O'Toole, D O'Connor, G Jones, D Shanahan, A Kernohan, C Gilroy

Munster:

S Daly; A Conway, S Arnold, R Scannell, K Earls; J Carbery, C Murray; J Loughman, N Scannell, K Knox; F Wycherley, D O'Shea; P O'Mahony, J O'Donoghue, A Botha

Replacements: D Barron, D Kilcoyne, J Ryan, G Coombes, J O'Sullivan, N Cronin, D Goggin, C Cloete

Referee: Dan Jones

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