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Jack's flair missing as Ulster fail in the end

Visitors squander chance to honour their greates player with a victory

By Jonathan Bradley

On the day Irish rugby lost arguably its finest ever player, there was little of Jack Kyle's virtuoso style on show last night as Ulster somehow fell to interpro rivals Munster in what was an entertaining full-blooded contest but lacked quality.

The penalty count was needlessly high and, indeed, the game was perfectly summed up by its conclusion when Ian Humphreys, the man in Kyle's old No 10 shirt, with a perfect five from five off the tee, missed a straightforward conversion that would have given Ulster the most unlikely of wins and sent them to the top of the Pro12 table.

Had Nick Williams' late score brought with it a scarcely deserved win then Neil Doak would surely have felt like the luckiest man in Limerick after a performance that at one stage seemed unlikely to earn even the losing bonus point it eventually brought.

Winners of six in a row before last night, the hosts had momentum but the starting line-ups, as well as notable wins in this stadium during recent years, augured well for Ulster.

While captain Rory Best was included, despite playing 68 minutes against Australia on his return from a calf injury last weekend, and Robbie Diack was available for an impressive cameo off the bench, Munster were unable to field their frontline Irish stars.

Ulster were without Tommy Bowe, as well a host of his injured team-mates, but the winger's absence could not have been compared to Munster's loss of Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo.

Indeed, on the basis of the opening quarter, played out after an impeccably observed silence in memory of Kyle, those Limerick natives who had stayed away from Thomond Park seemed justified in their decision as Ulster bossed proceedings.

Building around the clever kicking of Humphreys, starting due to the shoulder injury shipped by usual fly-half Paddy Jackson, Ulster began excellently and eeked out four penalties that their No 10 duly knocked over, impressively.

The scrum, that traditional area of Munster supremacy, was encouraging too with props Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst earning a couple of penalties while Munster were disrupted on their own put in.

Ahead by 12 points without their opponents really firing a shot, Ulster would have expected Munster to come back but they will have been disappointed by their own role in proceedings.

After 23 minutes, when Craig Gilroy was pinged for a high tackle, the home side belatedly troubled the scoreboard operator thanks to an Ian Keatley penalty.

Ulster's response could have been swift but, after Black again had the beating of BJ Botha at scrum-time, the lineout malfunctioned and the chance was gone.

They were pressing again but a penalty awarded when Williams petulantly tossed the ball towards Donncha O'Callaghan after a tackle gave Munster the chance to clear the danger.

From there, it was not long before Robin Copeland was crossing the Ulster line after an impressive move but Doak will surely feel that his side were the architects of their own downfall. The atmosphere was starting to come to the boil after the Williams incident and, when the mild-mannered pair of Gilroy and Louis Ludik are involved in some afters, it is fair to assume the interpro rivalry still harbours the intensity of old.

It was Munster, though, that were the team in the ascendancy and, while they did not score again before the turn, Ulster were certainly the ones welcoming the opportunity to regroup afforded by half-time.

Poor defending off the back of a Munster scrum allowed scrum-half Duncan Williams to score just before he was bundled into touch and Keatley, by now putting early struggles behind him, nailed a difficult conversion.

With 25 minutes remaining, Munster's fly-half had added another six points off the tee to move Ulster out of losing bonus point territory and a game that had promised much now seemed set to yield no reward whatsoever.

When Franco van der Merwe was interfered with at the lineout, with Munster's Stephen Archer sent to the sin bin, Humphreys' penalty brought Ulster back within seven and offered the consolation of a solitary point - but the drama was not finished.

With a man advantage, the men in white finally gained some territory and Williams barrelled over to set up Humphreys' doomed attempt to seal the win. Even the most ardent of Ulster supporters will admit that it would have been an ill-deserved triumph.

Belfast Telegraph

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