Johann van Graan was left to rue Munster’s poor discipline for a second defeat in six days as both he and Ulster boss Les Kiss were left to ponder an archetypal game of two halves at Ravenhill.
Munster, beaten at home by Leinster on St Stephen’s Day, looked all set to atone with a powerhouse first-half performance in Belfast. Leading 17-0 at the interval, Munster failed to trouble the scoreboard further and Ulster took full advantage of a yellow card for Fineen Wycherley and red for Sammy Arnold to score four-second-half tries in a pulsating Guinness PRO14 derby.
Arnold’s dismissal came after a high tackle on Ulster fly-half Christian Lealiifano in the 58th minute and both coaches agreed referee Sean Gallagher had little option but to issue a red card to the centre. Yet for Munster, it was all the more galling given their fine first-half display that subdued a normally raucous sell-out crowd.
“I’m very disappointed after that start,” van Graan said. “In this game, you have got to keep 15 guys on the field and we went down to 13 and momentum went their way and left us in a very difficult spot.
“Sammy went for the tackle, hit him in the head and unfortunately the referee doesn’t have any other choice than to red card him. I don’t think it was intentional at all. I thought the spirit of the game was fantastic between two teams that were desperate to win.” Of the turnaround in fortunes from one half to the next, Munster winning the first 17-0 and Ulster the second 24-0, the Munster head coach said: “I can’t really explain it at this stage. I guess that is the momentum of this game. We got all the go forward in the first half in terms of our scrum and our maul. I thought we stopped their maul pretty well in the first half but very disappointed. We lost Sammy with a try and a red card straight after Fineen went off. I can’t really explain it. We have just got to improve.
“I don’t think anything was wrong. Mentally we kept in the game. With five minutes to go we had an opportunity right under the posts. Maybe execution, maybe tiredness of playing for 14 minutes non-stop. You also have got to remember first half it took a lot out of us and there were a lot of young guys on the field at the end. But no excuse. This was a game we should have won. We had opportunities. Unfortunately, we didn’t.” Van Graan also accepted that three missed first-half kicks from JJ Hanrahan, which could have sent Munster into the break 24-0 ahead, might have changed the complexion of the second half.
“It’s not on JJ in terms of the goalkicking. We started well. We got that (second-minute) penalty, didn’t get the reward, Went for touch. Scored two maul tries, didn’t get the conversion. Scored our third try, it might have been 24 or 27 up at half-time but that is the beautiful game of ours. Unfortunately, it didn’t go over. This was on us in terms of our discipline.” Ulster director of rugby Kiss described a “calm” home dressing room at half-time and sensed the tide could turn after the interval if his players stayed true to their gameplan.
“A couple of times you thought we probably tried to push it a little bit. Got the penalty, went to the lineout, put a tip on it and dropped a ball. We just had to be more patient there.
“There’s a reason why we didn’t make more changes, a couple of guys who didn’t get off the bench. I felt there was a certain energy prevailing and a certain type of momentum that was still there with that current group in there. They backed themselves.
“It was a game of two halves in a big way but that second half they just kept playing to the 80 minutes and we got just reward for it.”
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