Ulster breach fortress Munster with 17-19 Rabo win at Thomond Park
Ulster’s second string took full advantage of a distinctly off-colour Munster effort to raid Thomond Park for a famous win.
After 25 minutes of this interprovincial derby, events elsewhere had overtaken those on the pitch as both sides’ fates were being decided in Dublin and Glasgow.
The Warriors’ early bonus point ended any chance Munster had of finishing above third and, with Ulster already condemned to fourth, this was about bragging rights as both sides awaited confirmation of where they’ll be playing next weekend.
It was Ulster’s combination of fringe players and academy youngsters who responded better in terrible conditions to punish Munster’s costly errors.
Given his side had little to play for, Mark Anscombe rested the majority of his leading lights but one of the two certain play-off starters Nick Williams is now a major doubt for their trip to the RDS after being stretchered off with a knee injury.
Still, the win should lift them ahead of next Saturday’s semi-final against Leinster in the RDS given the bookies had given them a 19-point headstart before the game.
Munster, meanwhile, have to pick themselves up for a daunting trip to face Glasgow Warriors in Scotland after a terrible display from their much stronger side.
Things looked bleak for the visitors when they went 10-0 down within a quarter-of-an-hour as Munster, playing with the strong wind at their back, started well.
Young centre Stuart McCloskey brilliantly denied Gerhard van den Heever in the corner after a superb Casey Laulala break, before Ian Keatley opened the scoring after Williams held on in the tackle.
A scrappy half was lit up briefly by Munster’s try, with Laulala staying strong in McCloskey’s tackle to off-load to Keatley who found Duncan Williams. The scrum-half showed sleight of hand to release James Downey, he fed James Coughlan who drew the last defender to put Williams over.
Keatley converted, but almost as if they knew their fate was being sealed elsewhere what followed was as loose a Munster display as you could expect to see at Thomond Park.
Ulster hit back almost immediately as scrum-half Michael Heaney found acres of space, slipped the ball to Michael Allen who drew Williams and returned it to him and he touched down. Referee Nigel Owens had a look at the final pass which was borderline, but reckoned it was OK and Ian McKinney converted.
Allen was looking a threat and countered brilliantly only for Simon Zebo to halt his march, before Felix Jones took the loose ball and was halted by a Nick Williams high tackle. Keatley went to touch, but Damien Varley’s throw was easily picked off by Dan Tuohy.
It was symptomatic of the problems Munster were having, at one point Keatley wasn’t looking when Williams threw him a pass, and McKinney levelled before the break with a penalty after Munster’s runners strayed in front of the kicker.
He put his side in front within six minutes of the resumption when Paul O’Connell held on on the ground, but Munster responded almost instantly with a hard Kilcoyne carry followed by Keatley’s clever kick in behind which popped up for Sean Dougall who touched down.
The fly-half converted and it looked like the hosts would kick on, but the Ulster players held in and a brilliant Tuohy and Rob Herring counter-ruck led to a penalty right in front for McKinney to slot over.
Replacement JJ Hanrahan made a half break which led to a penalty but he opted for touch instead of kicking into the wind and the ensuing ruck came to little.
Instead it was Ulster who were taking their opportunities replacement tighthead Adam Macklin forced a penalty off James Cronin in the scrum and McKinney calmly slotted it over to give his side a two point lead.
Munster had 15 minutes to rescue the situation, but the errors continued to mount as O’Connell twice knocked on in close contact near the line.
The otherwise excellent Dave Foley knocked on a Hanrahan cross-kick as the clock continued to tick towards 80, and, while a knock-on from the scrum appeared to have given the home side another chance, the touch-judge spotted a James Cronin indiscretion and McKinney could clear his lines.
Kyle McCall’s throw went through Neil McComb’s hands and Damien Varley got his side going forward again, but having set up the field position, Hanrahan’s drop-goal to win it sailed low and wide.
Ulster kicked deep into the Munster half where Earls returned with interest but the night was summed up when Varley knocked on on half way, allowing the visitors to win the scrum and kick it dead.
However, as Ulster celebrated and the subs invaded the pitch, the Munster players pleaded for Owens to upstairs. Once he did, he spotted Sean Doyle’s hand flicking the ball back into the scrum and awarded the penalty.
It wasn’t to matter as Hanrahan sent his kick from halfway wide and Ulster could finally celebrate a win to remember.
MUNSTER – F Jones; G van den Heever, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo (K Earls 53); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 50), D Williams (C Murray 58); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 61), D Varley (capt), J Ryan; D Foley, P O’Connell; P Butler, S Dougall, J Coughlan (T O’Donnell 53).
ULSTER – C Gilroy; D McIlwaine, M Allen, S McCloskey, R Scholes; J McKinney, M Heaney; C Black, R Herring, A Warwick (A Macklin 58); L Stevenson, D Tuohy (capt) (N McComb 52); M McComish, S Doyle, N Williams (C Joyce 34).
Referee: N Owens (WRU)