Munster 32-28 Ulster: key talking points
Belfast Telegraph rugby correspondent Jonathan Bradley analyses Friday's Ulster v Munster Guinness Pro12 clash.
1) Defensive system in need of work
Ulster came into the contest boasting the joint-best defence in the Pro12 having conceded just four tries in their first five games but that total had more than doubled after the 80 minutes. They missed 13% of their tackles, although the figure for Munster was actually marginally higher, but while Neil Doak’s men worked their linebreaks the hosts were able to exploit huge gaps in a defensive line that seemingly had the inside channels unmanned all too often.
As Tomas O’Leary burst through Ulster’s pillar defence at a ruck to create a score for Andrew Conway, the former international scrum-half was afforded the freedom of Limerick to make the break.
Les Kiss, a defensive specialist with Ireland from 2009 until the conclusion of the World Cup, will have plenty to ponder as he prepares to start work as the province’s new director of rugby on Monday.
2) Attacking intent to the fore
If Ulster were found wanting without the ball, then their attack will be a source of real optimism after the turgid trips to Llanelli and Edinburgh.
For all the talk of the offload being a dying art in the northern hemisphere over recent weeks, they were coming from all angles last night as Ulster displayed the brand of rugby that saw Neil Doak make his name.
Indeed at one point it was the unlikely figures of lock Lewis Stevenson and flanker Sean Reidy both passing out of the tackle in quick succession with Munster’s subsequent failure to get set leading to an offside and ultimately a try.
Not just pleasing on the eye, it was tactically interesting that the visitors chose last night to deploy such a gameplan. Despite Munster essentially fielding three number 8s, Anthony Foley's men would have been expected to have the better of the breakdown but the frequency with which Ulster passed or popped out of the tackle lessened time spent mired on the deck when in possession.
3) Ireland stars offer squad a real boost
Paddy Jackson and Darren Cave made their first starts of the season for the province and their influence on proceedings was apparent almost immediately. Cave was to the fore early on with two big involvements in the first six minutes. The centre may not have been entrusted to fill the void left by injuries to Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne at the World Cup but his value in Ulster has never been questioned with his decision-making again a real asset. While Peter Nelson, who switched to full-back last night, did a much needed job as a stand-in stand-off over the season’s opening weeks, Jackson really had Ulster’s backline moving. In a swirling wind it was not a memorable first half off the tee, but the composure and depth of his passing made a big impact.
4) Set-piece and silly penalties prove costly
Discipline is a frequent bugbear for any coach but the nature of the penalties Ulster have conceded on their travels this season will prove especially frustrating for the team management. The tally last night was an acceptable eight transgressions but five of that total was, largely unnecessarily, racked up in 20 minutes after the turn. It was that third quarter that produced a fifth and final lead change while the poorest concession of the evening, Denis Hurley’s try after a less than convincing battle in the air, was facilitated by a penalty advantage that prompted Ian Keatley to launch the ball in the air. The line-out, having failed to make the required impact in Murrayfield two weeks ago, was again hardly a weapon. Williams grabbed another try off a maul in the first-half but there were also scrappy moments out of touch while Munster’s starting locks grabbed a steal apiece, including the crucial theft in the final minute.
5) Another Thomond outing to remember for Craig Gilroy
When Ulster’s team was announced on Thursday there were four changes to the run on side but it was a positional switch that saw Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble swap wings. When Munster followed suit, lining Simon Zebo up on the left having initially named Gerhard van den Heever in the 11 jersey, it provided a real contest to relish.
While it was the Cork native who scored the crucial try, a second brace of the season for Gilroy was noteworthy.
As well as the two scores, one a lengthy run and the second more of a step over effort that capitalised on good work from his forwards, his refusal to be tackled late on created the try for Dan Tuohy that brought two points.
Although the missed tackle on Conway was not his finest, there was real evidence of an increasing effort to match his natural flair with a grit that will surely warrant a return to the Test stage in the coming seasons.