Munster 21 Ulster 20
Munster overcame a horrible start and finish to this match to score an unlikely Guinness Pro12 win over interprovincial rivals Ulster at Thomond Park last night.
The one-point victory may have lacked the quality they will surely need to overcome French giants Clermont Auvergne in the Champions Cup on the same ground next Saturday but it was good enough to leapfrog Ulster and Ospreys from third place in the league to top, at least for a few hours.
A night that ended in huge relief as 14-man Munster, who had fallen 12-0 behind after 20 minutes, hung on for the win, had begun amid more sombre scenes as a minute’s silence was observed impeccably for the passing of Ulster, Ireland and Lions legend Jack Kyle and former Munster player and branch president David McCormack.
Munster had spoken about avenging last May’s home defeat to a second-string Ulster side yet instead set about reenacting their ineptitude of six months ago.
Ian Keatley missed an early penalty and was unable to test the Ulster back three with some poor kicking out of hand early on. He was not alone on that score, with JJ Hanrahan, otherwise looking comfortable at full-back under the high ball and going forward as an attacking threat, kicked straight down the throat of his opposite number Stuart Olding.
Munster were also struggling at the set-piece, referee Ian Davies of Wales penalising the home side on the first two engagements as the Ulster pack rumbled into dominance. Davies had been no stranger to irking Munster having sin-binned four players in the last derby he refereed against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in early October, and he continued to infuriate the home support, officially numbered at 17,101, with some questionable decisions at ruck time.
Those calls came at a cost to Munster with Ian Humphreys kicking Ulster into a 12-0 lead inside the first 20 minutes. Keatley found his sights with a penalty soon after but there was another setback when home debutant Pat Howard succumbed to a clash of heads with Hanrahan, prompting his substitution in the 28th minute.
Munster finally kicked into gear, sparked by an excellent try two minutes later when scrum-half Duncan Williams sent a sharp reverse pass inside to wing Ronan O’Mahony, who ran a great line to break over the Ulster 22. The ball found inside centre Denis Hurley who produced a line-breaking offload for Robin Copeland to score.
Keatley was unable to convert form left of the posts.
It left Munster four points adrift at the interval, trailing Ulster 12-8 but the half-time break brought a complete turnaround for the home side.
As if the first half had indeed been a nightmare replay of the last meeting with Ulster in Limerick, Munster awoke from their slumber, pressuring the visitors from the restart and getting their reward from a scrum inside the northerners’ 22, the ball slipping through the hands of Copeland, wearing six but playing this scrum at No.8. Scrum-half Williams was as quick with his brain as he was with his feet, recovering the situation, turning and darting into the corner for a well deserved try, Keatley this time slotting the conversion from the left touchline and then stretching the lead to 21-12 with two penalties over the next 10 minutes.
It left Munster with 25 minutes not just to protect what lead they had but having gained the ascendancy press on for a bonus point. They did go in search of the extras, only for referee Davies to rule out a try for Hanrahan after he had chased down an excellently weighted and angled grubber kick behind the Ulster line from Keatley. The replays showed Hanrahan appear to touch down then carry the ball over the dead-ball line but Davies and his TMO adjudged otherwise.
Worse was to come as Munster gave head coach Anthony Foley a gruelling closing period, first when sub tighthead Stephen Archer took his man out at a lineout, the yellow card leaving his team-mates short-handed for the final nine minutes.
Ulster duly turned the screw, making the right call to maul their opponents from a lineout and when their first effort over the line was ruled to have been held up, going again annd getting the try, Nick Williams looking as if he got the final touch.
So at 21-20, in the 79th minute Humphreys had the chance to win it at the death with his conversion from the left touchline. He missed but the delight among the home fans quickly became muted as Ulster, five seconds from full-time, won the restart and maintained possession for another three minutes or so, the agony for Munster only abating when CJ Stander ground out a penalty on halfway with the visitors not releasing.
Munster were off the hook.
Munster scorers: Tries: Copeland, Williams. Cons: Keatley. Pens: Keatley 3.
Ulster scorers: Tries: Williams. Pens: Humphreys 5.
MUNSTER: JJ Hanrahan (F Jones, 66); G van den Heever, P Howard (A Smith, 28), D Hurley, R O’Mahony; I Keatley, D Williams; J Ryan (D Kilcoyne, 50), D Casey, BJ Botha (S Archer, 68); D O’Callaghan — captain, B Holland; R Copeland (T O’Donnell, 50), P Butler, CJ Stander.
ULSTER: S Olding (P Nelson, 41-43); L Ludik (P Nelson, 64), D Cave, S McCloskey, C Gilroy, I Humphreys, P Marshall (M Heaney, 56); C Black (A Warwick, 60), R Best – captain (R Herring, 64), W Herbst (D Fitzpatrick, 60); A O’Connor (L Stevenson, 59), F vd Merwe; R Wilson, S Reidy (R Diack, 60), N Williams
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU)
Guinness PRO12 :Cardiff Blues 36 Benetton Treviso 25
Aviva Premiership Rugby: Bath (13) 25 Harlequins (3) 6
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