Ulster Rugby weather the storm and stand tall for Montpellier battle
Published 04/01/2014 | 01:30
It had everything really didn't it? Two great tries from Ulster in a first half that saw them seemingly out of sight and then, well, a typically gritty Munster comeback which at one point looked good enough to steal it.
But, to Ulster's credit, they held firm and will doubtless have enjoyed the sight of Paul O'Connell being given a yellow-card in the game's final minute, allowing Ruan Pienaar – scorer of 19 valuable points with his trusty boot – to put that 10-point margin between the sides.
It was always assumed that this would be just as much about what happens for both sides over the next two European weekends as it was about PRO12 positioning, but then, of course, Ulster couldn't really afford that attitude and they now sign off for Europe back in the top four which is all-important.
And what a cracking game it was with Ulster's skill and guile being ultimately offset by Munster's grit and forward power – two of their three tries came from lineout mauls – with one of the game's many key moments coming with five minutes to go and Munster having a five-metre scrum after just being held up over the line from another of those driving mauls.
Ulster simply dug in and John Afoa appeared to get the plaudits as the home side secured the penalty to lift the siege.
But there had been so many moments to savour and none better than the one which arrived in the 36th minute.
They'd been threatening this for a while and when it happened it really was a thing of wonder on a night which chilled to the bone.
Munster – already trailing 13-0 – lost the ball and Ulster were able to counter from their own half.
The ball made its way to Jared Payne and suddenly you could see something was on. The Kiwi saw a chance to torch Paul O'Connell on his inside and did so before throwing a marvellous left to right pass to Trimble.
The winger made ground on the angle before Darren Cave, coming on an another angle, got his hands on the ball and scored in the right corner.
It was a scintillating counter-attack and Ruan Pienaar's superb conversion was the icing on the cake to take it to 20-0 with only four minutes left of the first half.
But then, things were rather spoiled by Ivan Dineen's score and Munster continued that momentum early in the second half with Dave Kilcloyne and James Coughlan both getting over to narrow it to 23-19.
They must have wondered what might have happened had Ian Keatley been kicking accurately, but thankfully, Pienaar was on form.
Ulster underperformed in Dublin and, though the fallout and opprobrium hurled their way was considerable, they licked their wounds, looked at a number of areas and moved on to achieve this.
This weekend was always going to require a ramp-up regardless of how things could have gone at the RDS.
After all, this was Munster – a team everyone bar Treviso and Edinburgh had found impossible to beat this season before last night – and this was the last weekend of PRO12 action ahead of the final two pool rounds in the Heineken Cup with both last night's opponents in prime position to top their respective pools.
So, of course, we were always looking at a grand dress rehearsal for Europe with both sides close to full strength and ready to go full tilt to achieve that vital buzz word 'momentum'. Throw in Ulster's need to try and bounce back by bagging a PRO12 victory to propel them into Europe and all the ingredients were in place for one full-on contest.
And boy, did we get it. Frankly, there was never any doubt that this would be entirely full-blooded with O'Connell back at Ravenhill to cajole Munster onwards. Throw in his long-time second row partner Donncha O'Callaghan – who left injured – and current skipper Peter O'Mahony and this was pretty darn close to Munster's key driving forces all involved and ready to give no quarter.
What a set of match-ups we were offered as well. Paddy Jackson up against Ian Keatley with both vying to become chief back-up to Jonathan Sexton ahead of the Six Nations and then there was Chris Henry and Tommy O'Donnell going hammer and tongs to show Joe Schmidt that should Sean O'Brien not be around for next month's opening clash with Scotland that both could offer their services as viable options at openside flanker.
It was also another chance for Payne – who will be Irish qualified next season – to put his wares on display against Irish opposition and last night he got a spin at full-back and was pitted directly against the already capped Felix Jones who still harbours further international ambitions.
And, elsewhere, it was a chance for Dan Tuohy to show his worth for squad inclusion while Cave and Irish-qualified Robbie Diack would have been hoping to show Schmidt that he too can play a bit.
It was difficult to say who shaded who, but the very fact that Ulster prevailed will have done their players' Ireland hopes no harm at all.
More importantly, though, they nailed the win and welcome Montpellier next Friday in the right frame of mind.