Although ultimately well beaten by Munster, Ulster have taken much heart from the fact that they outplayed the Magners League leaders in the first half of Saturday night’s battle — and from having remained in the hunt until the final minutes despite being under almost non-stop pressure after the interval.
Munster are unbeaten at Thomond Park this season. Indeed, you have to go all the way back to April 24, 2010 to discover when they last lost a competitive fixture at their Limerick citadel.
It also says much for the respect they have for Brian McLaughlin’s side that the Munster replacements included players of the calibre of Ireland's Jerry Flannery, Tony Buckley and Tomas O’Leary, plus Tommy O'Donnell, Barry Murphy and Lifeimi Mafi, each of whom scored tries in the hosts’ blitzkrieg finale.
The plus points — of which there were many — included the fact that Ulster’s pre-interval play totally eclipsed that of the Magners League pace-setters. Clearly they have something on which to build.
Youngsters like Tommy Seymour and Luke Marshall stepped up having been called into service at the most daunting of venues, where TJ Anderson’s try was as good as any Ulster have scored for many a day. Scrum-half Paul Marshall had another impressive outing behind the pack. Forget his 78th minute slip which gifted Murphy a dribble-through try; at that stage Ulster already trailed by 11 points and could not get out of their own half. Marshall’s unfortunate and wholly uncharacteristic mistake was not their undoing and to suggest otherwise would be grossly unfair, to say nothing of inaccurate.
His ability to break — and the resultant unpredictability of what Ulster might do next — caused the Munster defence numerous problems in the first half.
It also revived the question of whether Ulster’s interests might best be served by a Marshall-Ruan Pienaar half-back partnership with the South African wearing 10.
At this moment, however, Ulster’s focus will be on climbing back up off the canvas following two inter-pro defeats.
Next up are Benetton Treviso who come to Ravenhill on Friday night. Having won 19-9 against those same Italians at Stadio di Monigo as recently as November 26, Ulster know they can beat these opponents.
And after losing two on the spin, the timing of that fixture could not be better in that it should enable them to gear up for the following weekend’s crucial Heineken Cup home date with Biarritz