Ulster 23 Munster 23: It may not have felt like it at the time, as Paddy Jackson’s excellent conversion sent a sold-out Ravenhill into raptures, but it may well be Munster rather than Ulster who finish the season with more to celebrate.
The visitors from the south had, after all, just blown a seven-point lead they had methodically, cleverly engineered over an enthralling 80 minutes and saw a first victory at Ulster in five seasons snatched from their grasp.
That it had been denied them by a team reduced to 14 men by the red card issued by Nigel Owens to Iain Henderson eight minutes previously, and which then proceeded to advance upfield and remarkably create an overlap out wide for replacement scrum-half-turned-wing Paul Marshall to scamper over in the corner will only add to the sense of disappointment.
Yet this draw for Anthony Foley’s men in a ground that has prompted so many rueful road trips home should give Munster the perfect launchpad into the final regular season game this weekend in Cork and on into the Guinness Pro12 semi-finals.
Certainly two points have kept the province in with a shout of making that play-off game in two weeks a home tie, the penultimate round of matches having left Munster level on points with Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors, occupying the two places above them on games won.
Ulster’s two points for their role in a thoroughly entertaining encounter leave them trailing the front three by a point heading into round 22, when they have the unenviable task of travelling to Glasgow needing a victory this Saturday afternoon and at the same time hoping either Ospreys, who visit Connacht, or Munster, who host Newport Gwent Dragons, slip up.
If that scenario fails to materialise for Neil Doak’s side, they will have to go back on the road and become the first Celtic League side in the 10-year history of the knockout rounds to win an away semi-final if they are to secure a dream final back on home ground on May 30.
And if they do not make it home for the Pro12 decider, it will be this draw that will haunt them. For while Ulster played the more attractive rugby, prompted by Paddy Jackson’s excellent creativity with the ball in hand that provided the platform for several first half try-scoring opportunities, it was the stronger pack, disciplined defence and better game management of Munster half-backs Conor Murray and Ian Keatley which bossed proceedings for long periods of the game, despite the early losses through injury of Tommy O’Donnell and Simon Zebo.
Keatley’s goal-kicking had given Munster a 9-0 lead after 37 minutes and then an 18-13 lead after 68 yet Ulster found a way not to lose either half, with a converted Tommy Bowe try giving the home side a 10-9 interval lead and then Marshall’s converted score wiping out Keith Earls’s fifth try in six games which had put the visitors 23-16 ahead with three minutes to play.
The conversion, from wide right, would have put the game beyond Ulster but after six penalties Keatley missed for the first time in the game and Ulster sniffed their chance.
The clock showed 80:48 when auxiliary wing Marshall, on for the injured Peter Nelson, darted over the try line, to leave Jackson with that pressure-filled kick to tie the game.
But for all the understandable disappointment at the concession of those late points expressed by the Munster head coach, you would rather be in his place rather than that of his opposite number right now.
“It’s a very good result. Munster v Ulster up here, historically, we don’t often get a result up here, so we got a result and we go home.
“Unfortunately the circumstances of the result are probably what hit you most. We were seven points up with time up and we’d like to think we can force them to do one more thing. We didn’t, unfortunately, and fair play to Paddy Jackson for slotting it, a good try out of Paul Marshall, well-worked try and it leaves us disappointed.”
For what had been a thoroughly professional job, Foley suggested his players had “scored too quickly” in leaving Ulster too much time to score themselves.
“It’s nearly like those American football plays where they intentionally allow you to score so they can go down the other end of the field.
“It’s one of those things. In hindsight you’d like to think a few things differently but I think our performance to get ourselves into that position was very good. I thought our set-piece was very good and I thought the way the boys managed the kick game up here was very good and we played very little rugby in our own half and didn’t feel we were under a lot of pressure in our own half during the whole 80 minutes.
“Everything we did should have led to a win but it didn’t and a lot of credit has to go to Ulster for that.”
L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave (S McCloskey, 56), P Nelson (P Marshall, 64); P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black (A Warwick, 62), R Best — captain, W Herbst, (B Ross, 51); D Tuohy, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson (R Diack, 30).
Subs not used:
R Herring, C Ross, I Humphreys.
F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo (R O’Mahony, 27); I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Ryan, 48), E Guinazu, S Archer (BJ Botha, 48); D Ryan, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony – captain, T O’Donnell (J O’Donoghue, 3), CJ Stander. Subs not used: D Casey, B Holland, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan.
Nigel Owens (Wales)
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved