Munster came up short in their final game before the international break as Ulster foiled a late comeback to consign Graham Rowntree’s side to a fifth defeat and a third interprovincial loss of the season in Limerick on Saturday.
The one-point win, secured in the final play by a ruck penalty earned by Springbok Duane Vermuelen, means Ulster keep the pressure on Leinster at the top of the BKT United Rugby Championship with their fifth win in six games this season, despite not scoring in a second half dominated by the home side.
Yet despite rallying from a 15-3 half-time deficit having conceded two driving-maul tries inside the first quarter and a third from close range to flanker David McCann, the try from Shane Daly added to two second-half penalties form Jack Crowley was not enough to prevent a first loss at Thomond Park since last April’s league defeat to Leinster.
It made for a disappointing night for all but a couple of dozen of the 15,260 inside Thomond Park. Injury-hit Munster had initially displayed many of the problems that had marked their poor start to the campaign before eventually sparking to life but ultimately running out of road. Head coach Rowntree must now prepare for a glamour tour game against South Africa A at a sold-out Pairc Ui Chaoimh on November 10 before the URC campaign resumes 16 days later at home to Connacht when the southern province will need to avoid their western neighbours completing a league double.
Rowntree had made nine changes and one positional switch from the side which started the previous weekend’s loss at Leinster, including a second debut for tighthead prop John Ryan at the age of 34 following his re-signing on a short-term deal from Wasps after the English club went into administration.
While Ryan was making his 198th Munster appearance there was a youthful look to the second row as academy lock Edwin Edogbo returned from a calf injury and Eoin O’Connor, 22, made his first start since a senior debut at Wasps last December having made two more appearances off the bench last season.
Ulster had been forced into more pressing changes as they returned to action following the postponement of last weekend’s game at the Sharks due to a gastroenteritis and e.coli outbreak in their camp. They lost flanker Sean Reffell in the warm-up with Jordi Murphy promoted to number seven from the replacements and the former Leinster man made an instant impact, scoring the opening try of the game on four minutes as Ulster struck from a penalty kicked to the corner and mauled from five metres out.
Nathan Doak missed the conversion from wide out but Ulster had silenced Thomond Park early. Not for long though, the home crowd were incensed when referee Frank Murphy chose not to punish Ulster No.8 Vermuelen with anything more than a penalty after the Springbok took exception to some attention from Munster hooker Diarmuid Barron at the back of a ruck. Vermuelen had appeared to pin Barron to the floor with his hand on the hooker’s throat before Edogbo tried to prise them apart. A TMO check led to a Munster penalty but Vermuelen escaped with a warning. Crowley’s successful penalty from in front of the posts made it 3-5 but Ulster quickly reasserted their advantage with another maul try, this time in the opposite, right-hand corner, hooker Tom Stewart making the touchdown. Doak again failed to take the extra points from wide out but Ulster had a seven-point lead at 10-3.
Munster grew into the contest but once again failed to capitalise on their possession, an overthrown lineout and two knock-ons, all inside the Ulster 22 frustrating home coaches and supporters. They were lucky not pay with a third Ulster try on 32 minutes, David McCann’s score from short-range ruled out by a Doak knock-on at the base of the preceding ruck.
It did not get any better for Munster though when Malakai Fekitoa was yellow-carded for a no-arms contact high on McCann six minutes later and with a man down, Ulster did get their third try of the half, James Hume claiming the five points on his return from a groin injury sustained on Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand. Doak’s missed conversion closed the half but that will have been of little consolation to Munster as they trailed 15-3 at the interval.
Starting the second half a man down, Munster would not have appreciated Ulster’s ability to bring on a British & Irish Lions prop in Rory Sutherland at the break, signed from Worcester on a short-term contract, and scrum-half John Cooney three minutes later. But they did open the brighter of the sides as the rain began to pour in Limerick. Two penalties in the third quarter from Jack Crowley narrowed the deficit to six points at 15-9 as Fekitoa returned from the sin bin.
The crowd’s sense that momentum was shifting grew further with the introduction of Simon Zebo off the bench for his first game since round two following illness and injury. Not only that but the visitors’ discipline began to fray. Replacement forward Cormac Izuchukwu was sin-binned after yet another Ulsterman was penalised for not moving away from a ruck and the concession of another penalty, this time for a high tackle saw Munster gain a foothold inside the opposition 22.
This time they made the incursion pay, their lineout maul earning a penalty advantage that was not needed as Paddy Patterson fed Crowley from whom a short pass found Zebo, whose carry from left to right stretched the short-handed defence before a killer pass reached Shane Daly to score unopposed in the right corner.
Crowley’s conversion from close to the touchline struck the near upright and Munster had missed the opportunity to edge in front with 10 minutes remaining, though they were right back in the contest at 14-15.
Ulster rallied, to their credit and carved out a penalty opportunity with three minutes remaining when Alex Kendellen went in at the side but instead of making the game safe they kicked to the corner and came up short when replacement prop Roman Salanoa earned his side a ruck penalty on five metres. There was the sniff of a chance as Munster won another penalty and moved further upfield but Vermuelen came up trumps for his side at the death, clamping over the ball as Salanoa carried into contact to end the game with an Ulster penalty.
M Haley; S Daly, M Fekitoa, R Scannell, P Campbell (S Zebo, 61); J Crowley, P Patterson (N Cronin, 70); D Kilcoyne (J Wycherley, 60), D Barron (N Scannell, 60, Barron, 70 - HIA), J Ryan (R Salanoa, 60); E Edogbo, E O’Connor (C Hurley, 50); J O’Donoghue - captain, J Hodnett, A Kendellen.
M Fekitoa 39-49 E O’Connell, B Healy
S Moore, B Moxham, J Hume, L Marshall, E McIlroy, B Burns, N Doak (J Cooney, 43); A Warwick (R Sutherland, h-t), T Stewart (J Andrew, 60), M Moore; A O’Connor - captain, S Carter (C Izuchukwu, 54); D McCann (Matty Rea, 53), J Murphy, D Vermeulen.
C Izuchukwu 62-72 G Milasinovich, A Curtis, C Gilroy.
Frank Murphy (IRFU).