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Ulster are relying on a helping hand after PRO12 battle with Munster

Ulster 23-23 Munster

By Michael Sadlier

Published 11/05/2015

On the run: Louis Ludik comes under pressure from Munster ace Keith Earls at the Kingspan
On the run: Louis Ludik comes under pressure from Munster ace Keith Earls at the Kingspan

If you like breathless finishes then this delivered with bountiful interest, but when Saturday's pulsating drama is distilled down to its purest form then two players clearly emerge centre stage from the 23-23 draw against Munster - and for different reasons.

Enter Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson. That red card and that conversion. Both moments arrived in one of the most frantic endgames seen at the Kingspan Stadium.

And both incidents could have monumental impacts on what remains of Ulster's season and their still-held ambition of being in Belfast in three games' time to lift the Guinness PRO12 title on the last Saturday in May.

While Jackson's nerveless touchline conversion has thrown Ulster the slenderest of lifelines regarding their hopes of a top-two finish and playing their semi-final in Belfast - they need to win in Glasgow on Saturday and hope another result goes their way - it was Henderson's sending off that is now causing Neil Doak and his coaching team their greatest unease.

The 23-year-old was dismissed by referee Nigel Owens - after consulting with TMO Kevin Beggs - for what was deemed to be a reckless incident leading with his head when hitting a ruck and making contact with Ronan O'Mahony.

Henderson will now be facing a ban which could bring a sanction of anything between four and 12 weeks and his fate will be decided this week. It was a huge call at a pivotal moment and Ulster are determined to appeal what judgment may come.

Whether it proves enough to get their key forward back on the paddock for what is left of the season remains to be seen, though it does seem highly unlikely.

Ulster certainly need him though and Henderson's presence was again notable on Saturday with another barn-storming display to give the watching Joe Schmidt food for thought by eclipsing opposite number Peter O'Mahony.

Potentially having to cope without Henderson for the rest of the season has a terminal look for Ulster's ambitions and also brings into sharper focus what has been a notably damaging campaign on the disciplinary front with two previous reds for Declan Fitzpatrick and Stuart McCloskey plus citing bans for Nick Williams, Luke Marshall, Roger Wilson and Alan O'Connor.

But Doak has other back row worries after Saturday with Roger Wilson having exited on the half-hour mark - he was replaced by 150-cap man Robbie Diack - after a bang to the head.

Starting props Wiehahn Herbst and Callum Black also shipped damage while Ruan Pienaar's ankle prevented him from kicking at goal though he did get through 80 minutes, as did Louis Ludik. On a more positive note, though, Craig Gilroy is soon to be back from his hamstring issue.

What a compelling climax beckons for this Saturday's final round of regulation games with just one point separating fourth-placed Ulster from the other three home semi contenders.

And Ulster's late 14-man rally? Jackson revealed afterwards that Rory Best had delivered a 'once more onto the breach' moment.

It came under the posts just after Keith Earls had put the visitors 23-16 in front and while Ian Keatley was lining up what would prove to be a vital missed conversion.

Best's words clearly had an effect as Ulster came again and how appropriate it was that Jackson's skip pass worked Paul Marshall clear to scamper over in the corner.

It was a fitting expression of Ulster's constant ambition with the ball in hand but nothing compared to what followed with Jackson's wonderful strike bisecting the posts.

Ulster led 10-9 at the break after battling back late in the half from being 9-0 down through a Jackson penalty and conversion of Tommy Bowe's coruscating try off Henderson's pass. This became 13-9 shortly afterwards but two Keatley penalties made it 15-13 on the hour.

It was 18-13 after Marshall had taken Earls out in the air but, with 10 minutes to go, Jackson hit back to cut Munster's lead to two after Bowe secured a restart.

Then came Henderson's sending off, Earls' try, Marshall's score and Jackson's nerveless conversion.

And here's something to ponder - these two might just meet again in the semis.

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