Ulster left spooked by Munster in Halloween thriller
Munster 32-28 Ulster
Two points seemed scant reward for Ulster's part in what was surely the Pro12's most entertaining game of the season but that was all Neil Doak's side were left with after a 32-28 defeat in Thomond Park last night.
The sides shared nine tries - five for Munster and four for the visitors - but despite a virtuoso showing from Craig Gilroy who scored twice - in addition to scores from Nick Williams and Dan Tuohy - Ulster endured another defeat on the road after a defence, that had been solid this season, faltered in support of a hugely bright showing with ball in hand.
The inclusion of Cork speedster Simon Zebo, who scored the crucial try, boosted a Munster attack that had been bettered only by three sides in the league last season and the result was an end to end game with attack on top.
Ulster had shipped just four tries in the league this season but that total would more than double over the course of the evening.
While a sparse crowd of 7,200 was the result of an enforced 6pm kick-off, due to the World Cup play-off, those in attendance certainly received value for money.
There were just three minutes on the clock when Gilroy, back on the scene of his 2012 Heineken Cup heroics, gave the visitors a lead.
Munster had threatened through the in-form Francis Saili but he was met well by Stuart McCloskey who stripped the ball for his midfield partner Darren Cave.
Drawing his opposite number Denis Hurley with a clever step, Cave passed out of the tackle to Gilroy and, despite Andrew Conway chasing, there was no catching Ulster's player of the year from the past campaign.
If the playing surface still held its summer sheen, the conditions were very much autumnal and a swirling wind pushed what looked a good conversion attempt from Jackson across the posts.
With Jackson's distribution from 10 drawing teammates up to and across the gainline, Ulster were posing a greater threat with ball in hand but Tomas O'Leary, making a greatly encouraging first start for the hosts since his return to these shores, darted through a huge gap in Ulster's defence for James Cronin's offload to set Conway in the clear.
Keatley converted and Munster had a short-lived lead that was eradicated, when Cronin was caught not rolling away, almost immediately for Jackson to knock the ball over.
The returning fly-half was still pulling the strings and his flat pass released Williams, whose rich vein of form continued, to bulldoze his way upfield.
When the ball was recycled quickly, it was Gilroy again on hand to dive over in the corner.
Then, 180 breathless seconds later, it was Munster back in the lead after good work from Zebo and Keatley's clever inside pass to Robin Copeland saw the No 8 under the posts.
When Gerhard van den Heever broke through a tackle and rounded outside of Andrew Trimble, even with Keatley's conversion scuffed below the crossbar, it looked as if Munster would carry the lead into the break.
There was still one more twist though as well executed offloads from Lewis Stevenson and Sean Reidy gained ground to catch Munster offside.
Captain Rob Herring, with the swirling wind no doubt on his mind, went for the corner and, unlike against Edinburgh on the last away trip, was fully vindicated as Williams got a deserved score off the maul.
Jackson's conversion came back off the upright, however, to send Ulster into the break a point in arrears.
Sam Arnold replaced Trimble at the break and, while Ulster were initially met with stern resistance, Jackson, with the wind now less of a nuisance, stepped back and popped over a drop goal for a 21-19 lead.
A penalty for Munster soon produced another lead change but the second-half was certainly a more structured affair.
The Munster maul came to the fore soon after and, with a penalty advantage in their favour, Keatley launched a garryowen that Pete Nelson and Conway batted around before Hurley touched down.
The subsequent conversion was wide to keep it a one score game but Munster would score again with 15 minutes to go after a break from Cronin upfield saw Zebo safely over in the corner.
Not to be outdone, Tuohy secured Ulster's try bonus and, when Jackson nailed the conversion, a great escape to better last season's last-gasp draw at the Kingspan was on the cards.
However, a crucial line-out steal from Munster in the final minutes ended one late threat and, even after Munster kicked the ball dead before time was up, there was no way over the line in the dying moments from the subsequent scrum.
MUNSTER: A Conway, G van den Heever, F Saili, D Hurley, S Zebo, I Keatley, T O'Leary; J Cronin, M Sherry, BJ Botha, D Foley, M Chisholm, CJ Stander (c), J O'Donnell, R Copeland
Replacements: D Casey (for Sherry, 55), J Ryan (for Cronin, 66), M Sagario, D Ryan (for Foley, 50), J Coghlan (for O'Donaghue, 70), D Williams, R Scannell (for Hurley, 70), R O'Mahony
ULSTER: P Nelson, C Gilroy, D Cave, S McCloskey, A Trimble; P Jackson, P Marshall; A Warwick, R Herring, W Herbst; L Stevenson, F van der Merwe; R Wilson, S Reidy, N Williams
Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 66), C Black (for Warwick 50), R Lutton (for Herbst, 67), D Tuohy (for van der Merwe, 62), C Henry (for Reidy, 52), P Rowley, I Humphreys, S Arnold (for Trimble, 40).
Match rating: 9/10
Man of the match: CJ Stander, on the day he qualifies for Ireland, was everywhere, forcing three key turnovers