Munster 35 Ulster 10: A three-try blitz in the last five minutes made the final score of Saturday night’s Munster-Ulster showdown at Thomond Park somewhat misleading.
For while 35-10 sounds like a whipping, the truth is that the scoreline was harsh on much-changed Ulster whose willingness to battle on this occasion was in stark contrast to their abject surrender to Leinster five days earlier at Ravenhill.
It is one of the perversities of sport that the vanquished sometimes emerge with their reputation intact if not actually enhanced.
January 1, 2011 was one such occasion, for the stark match statistics – four tries, three of which were converted by Paul Warwick who also kicked a hat-trick of penalties to one Ulster touchdown to which Paddy Wallace added the extras having landed a goal just two minutes earlier – give a totally false impression.
Ulster went in leading 10-6, their reward for having played much the better rugby in the first
half. The quality of some of what they served up belied the fact that Robbie Diack, Ian Whitten and Simon Danielli and Robbie Diack were the only survivors of those who had started against Leinster.
The selection included injury-plagued Jamie Smith who lined out at full-back for what was his first start since October 8 when he faced Aironi in Ulster’s 2010/11 Heineken Cup opener.
Wing Tommy Seymour’s only previous senior experience was two Magners League outings in September and a run-out for the final five minutes of last Monday’s shambles against Leinster.
Centre Luke Marshall’s pre-Limerick appearances consisted of two as a replacement against Munster back in October and Leinster on January 27.
Up front, tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick’s recent game time amounted to nine minutes against Leinster that same evening. This was his first start since suffering a serious injury whilst playing against Aironi on September 11.
Lock Ryan Caldwell’s most recent senior game was that same evening in Italy where his participation amounted to 18 minutes, while Saturday night was blindside TJ Anderson’s first appearance of the campaign.
And, as per an IRFU directive, Paddy Wallace was selected at fly-half. The omens were not good; on the two previous occasions he had played there previously tis season Ulster drew with Connacht in Galway and lost to Edinburgh at Murrayfield.
In the circumstances, Ulster’s first-half performance was remarkably good, with Wallace’s half-back partner, Paul Marshall, instrumental in much of what they did.
Their 12th minute try – initiated by Seymour whose run opened up the defence, continued by Willie Faloon and completed by Anderson – was superb in its execution and having gone 10-0 up as a result the visitors were looking very good.
And had pivot Marshall been able to keep going following an excellent 24th minute break which took him to within two metres, who knows? Instead Munster – who trailed 10-3 at the time – managed to avoid further damage, duly lopped three more points off the deficit and then served up four tries as part of an unanswered 29-points post-interval barrage, albeit that 21 of those came in the dying minutes.
The first of those tries, scored on 52 minutes by Denis Hurley who touched down in the left corner, followed their first line break of the contest. More tellingly it gave Munster the lead for the first time and having gone 14-10 up they never looked like losing thereafter.
Ulster defended with admirable zeal, but with the penalty count against them mounting steadily, Neil McComb became the fall guy when referee Dudley Phillips – who had warned the visitors - finally decided he had had enough and yellow-carded the replacement forward going into the final quarter.
For 15 minutes, 14-man Ulster held out to remain on course for a losers’ bonus. Wallace typified their passion, heroically preventing home captain Denis Leamy from grounding the ball as the Munster forwards drove over.
That gave rise to five minutes of unyielding pressure, with Munster tightening the screw and laying siege to the Ulster line.
Finally – inevitably – it told. Replacement Tommy O'Donnell got through and Warwick’s conversion made it 21-10. Adieu losers’ bonus.
A cruel Paul Marshall slip two minutes from the end enabled Barry Murphy to score a third Munster try and in injury time Lifeimi Mafi ensured maximum points with Warwick converting the brace.