Ulster 6 Munster 16: Two weeks ago Ulster were unbeaten. They then lost to Biarritz in the Heineken Cup. End of unbeaten run.
That was followed by their first Magners League defeat of the season when they lost to Edinburgh.
Last night the third leg of the stool was kicked away when they forfeited their ‘unbeaten at Ravenhill’ status with Munster winning in Belfast for the first time since March 2007.
Munster did so with a motley crew of senior, Academy and Development players, with coach Tony McGahan giving two men — lock Ian Nagle and centre Ivan Dineen — their first starts.
It was to have been three but, true to form Munster sprang a surprise by naming Damien Varley — released late on by the Irish management team — at hooker.
That move saw Mike Sherry dropping to the bench, where the eight included four who were either Academy or Development contracted players.
It began in typical derby fashion — hard, fast and aggressive — with Ulster on top both territorially and in terms of possession. So it was no more than their play had merited that they went ahead when Ruan Pienaar kicked a sev
enth minute penalty from just outside the 22.
That lead had been coming, for prior to Pienaar’s goal youngsters Nevin Spence and David McIlwaine had only been halted by last-ditch tackles.
Not for the first time this season, however, Ulster made a mess from the restart with Robbie Diack knocking on to create a problem which they failed to solve. In an attempt to help them do so Willie Faloon went offside enabling Paul Warwick to equalise.
Nevertheless Ulster were more than holding their own in the all-important forward battle, with Nigel Brady’s line-out throw hitting the target each time and captain Johann Muller excelling in securing clean ball from that setpiece. The scrum was solid and in the loose they were making more hard yards than their opposite numbers.
The confidence grew after Pienaar’s second penalty put them |6-3 ahead after 15 minutes.
Prior to kick-off Alan Quinlan, who last night won his 204th Munster cap, paid Ulster a big compliment by saying: “Playing in Ravenhill is as tough an away fixture as you'll get.”
The tough Munster flanker’s words rang true when he was forced to retire with a hamstring problem at the end of the first quarter, followed a short time later by Ulster fledgling Mark McCrea whose exit saw Luke Marshall enter the fray at centre with Spence moving out to the right wing.
Ulster dominated the remainder of the first half, with only outstanding defence sparing Munster greater punishment, though they might have slipped further behind had Pienaar been able to kick a 40-metre penalty from straight in front.
Costly miss in so tight a match.
Instead they had to settle for a 6-3 interval lead, leaving the Ravenhill crowd to wonder if they could produce a decent second half having failed to do so in each of their previous two outings.
Another bad restart which saw Ulster fail to secure possession from the kick-off gave Munster an easy three points via Warwick’s boot and with the scores tied at |6-6, even at that stage one sensed it might come down to the greater will to win.
Munster began to tighten the screw up front as they eased into their famous driving format, patiently going through the phases.
Ulster responded by introducing Jerry Cronin and Chris Henry for McAllister and Diack respectively and began to make fresh in-roads almost at once.
Going into the final 20 minutes they appeared to be in the ascendancy.
With 15 minutes remaining, Barker made way for Dan Tuohy as Ulster tried to up the ante again.
But with referee Alan Lewis repeatedly finding fault with things which baffled and frustrated the Ulster players and fans alike it came to nothing and when, in the 70th minute, Warwick landed his third goal from three attempts that gave Munster a crucial 9-6 lead.
Had Pienaar’s statistics been as good, Ulster would have escaped with a share of the spoils but from well within range and just slightly off centre the Springbok missed again.
And to add insult to injury, debutant Dineen scored under the posts leaving Warwick to complete his perfect four from four with the last kick of the match.