Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

In Pictures: Ulster show ugly side to carve up Munster

Ulster 15 Munster 10

Winston Churchill once said: “The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult.”

The fact his observation was the one that instantly sprang to mind at the final whistle of Ulster’s Magners League win over Munster on Saturday night at frosty Ravenhill provides some insight as to the nature of the triumph.

For success notwithstanding, there are still more questions than answers. In the vernacular and in defiance of the laws governing the correct use of grammar, Ulster won ugly. Having led 15-0 after 22 minutes, they spent most of the following 58 fighting a rearguard action.

Having lost three Magners League games on the spin it was a must-win game. And, credit where it is due, Brian McLaughlin’s side delivered the required result.

But don’t run off with the idea that Ulster tore down the colours of the defending Magners League champions. They did not; they beat Munster’s second string by a slender margin.

Their old adversaries were without an entire first-choice pack – internationals Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, captain Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Thomas Leamy.

That meant more than 400 Irish caps worth of experience sidelined.

Behind the scrum they were minus half-back partners Tomas O’Leary and Ronan O’Gara and utility backs Keith Earls and Barry Murphy.

Again, all internationals, three of them Lions. So let’s not get too carried away.

Ulster weathered an early storm and, having done so, nosed ahead in the 12th minute courtesy of a well-struck Ian Humphreys penalty.

It was against the run of play, but few in the shivering 11,808-strong crowd will have minded.

Nor were there any audible complaints six minutes later when Simon Danielli’s admirably opportunistic smash and grab act yielded the opening try.

Humphreys converted and at the end of a first quarter in which, by and large, they had been on the back foot, Ulster led 10-0.

Those who had just sat down after standing up on cue “for the Ulstermen”, were on their feet again moments later to acclaim a magnificent second Danielli try of which Humphreys and the outstanding Andrew Trimble were the architects.

Noticeably, in well-advised deference to Mother Nature, the Scottish winger did not dive over in the manner which has become conventional. The only-just-playable pitch was very hard in parts, the in-goal areas included.

Ulster made the most of their chances and for that they deserve credit. There have been occasions this season when they have played better, without reward. Saturday night, however, saw them bank points where and when those were available.

Ultimately they won off the back of an excellent scrum — their front five shone — and highly disciplined defence.

Their tackling was excellent, too, and their ability to adapt when Paddy Wallace limped off after half-time with what appeared to be a recurrence of his ankle injury was impressive.

Timoci Nagusa was brought on to the wing, with Trimble moving to outside centre and the impressive Ian Whitten, who tackled superbly throughout, switching to the inside channel. It did not disrupt them.

Another of the replacements, Thomas Anderson, who deputised for injured open side Willie Faloon, was another who played a big post-interval part. Twice his hands let him down but two knock-ons weighed against all of what he brought to bear was a very good exchange.

Ulster’s ability to withstand pressure close to their own line was laudable and it was telling that, when most they needed to do so, they won a number of crucial battles both physical and mental.

They got one or two fortuitous rubs of the green, too, as when, with 14 minutes remaining, Munster fly-half Paul Warwick hit an Aquinas End post with a penalty. Anderson fumbled the ball, giving Munster a scrum five metres out and under the Ulster posts.

But once again the magnificent defence held, as indeed it did for all of the match bar a late second-quarter lapse during which Jean de Villiers got through for a try, converted by Warwick who had kicked a penalty minutes earlier.

Not the prettiest of Ulster wins, but a pretty important one, albeit that quite a few questions remain to be answered.

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