Munster 24 Ulster 10: Leaving the final result aside, there were so many pre-match perceptions which were left looking rather bedraggled on a miserably wet Saturday night in Limerick.
For starters, Mark Anscombe’s radically restructured side refused to capitulate, which at 24-3 with half an hour to go looked as if it was inevitable, while it would also appear that they came through without any major injury worries with Craig Gilroy leaving the action late on for what was believed to be more of a precaution after hurting his knee.
And though this first PRO12 defeat — still only Ulster’s second reverse in 16 games over all competitions — clearly hurt all those who took part in the 24-10 outcome, they denied Munster a bonus point win which was to their credit after working so hard in such difficult circumstances.
Indeed, that is something the squad, as a whole, can draw from as they now prepare for Friday night’s Ravenhill meeting with second-placed Scarlets.
But back to Limerick, and Ulster’s efforts, of course, weren’t assisted by the usually sound Alain Rolland who appeared to make a number of unhelpful calls against the visitors, the most prominent of which was the awarding of a penalty try, albeit after pinging Ulster twice already, but, notably, when the visitors' scrum did not seem to be visibly preventing a score.
Then there was Ulster’s bench which when set alongside Munster’s — which included such gnarled notables as Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, and Marcus Horan — looked deeply shy of presence.
That perception also turned out to be somewhat wide of the mark as try scorer Ali Birch, Stuart Olding, Ricky Lutton and Michael Heaney — what a marvellous over the shoulder pass he threw in the lead up to Birch’s effort — all made extremely notable contributions to what was an already lost cause which may have also led to Munster taking their foot off the gas.
Indeed, just before Heaney’s break and ‘blind’ pass to the tireless Robbie Diack, Ulster had even won themselves a penalty off the Munster scrum which up until BJ Botha’s substitution had been the dominant force of the game.
“We hung in there and didn’t give up,” Anscombe said afterwards.
“I was pretty pleased with the way they finished and they didn’t allow Munster to score for about the last 25 minutes and apart from a couple of pockets of five to 10 minutes in each half I thought the boys battled well,” he added.
But, for all the consolation that this refusal to lie down — along with Mr Rolland’s equal
stubbornness in not sending a red-shirted player to the bin — brought them on their long journey back to Belfast, the inescapable fact was that Ulster had still fallen well short and had been undone by some high profile errors with Paul Marshall’s 34th minute yellow card being a particularly uncomfortable one.
Again it was another of those unexpected moments in which the Ulster scrum half allowed his boot to needlessly connect with the prone Donncha O’Callaghan. Though Ulster held on to troop off 10-3 down at half-time — the penalty try coming just after the half hour — they couldn’t plug the gap four minutes after the restart when Simon Zebo found himself facing Lewis Stevenson and the winger’s pace brought the home side a seven point dividend just before Paul Marshall returned.
While the defence was, on the whole, very committed and solid, when it malfunctioned Munster were able to reap a match-winning harvest as the first half penalty try came after Ian Keatley had skated between his opposite number Niall O’Connor and Luke Marshall, though the latter generally had an excellent outing.
It was then unfortunate for Luke Marshall that he was steamrolled for Peter O’Mahony’s 49th minute try when the Munster flanker had Tommy O’Donnell’s bulk also propelling him forward so close to the line. And, yes, though Anscombe praised their efforts he was also rightly critical of how things had unravelled at vital junctures which meant that skipper Roger Wilson and his team-mates ended up just doing too much fire-fighting.
“You’ve got to keep possession out there if you’re going to have a chance and we didn’t do that. But we just didn’t look after the ball in the contact areas very well and they didn’t allow us to build pressure,” Anscombe added
“If you can’t build pressure, you can’t score points. We just didn’t look after possession.”
The post-match video session may not be particularly pleasant, but the fact remains that Ulster are still nine clear of the Scarlets — their first opponents of 2013 — at the top of the PRO12 table.
Hardly the worst situation before the season-defining European fortnight begins to occupy all thoughts.