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Comment: Ulster comeback sums up the season with plenty of good and bad

 

By Michael Sadlier

Where to begin with that? We always knew that Ulster needed this result so much more than Munster but no-one really believed that that was ever going to be good enough.

And then we witnessed the first half and thought Ulster were on the way to ruinous defeat before being presented with its polar opposite in the second 40 minutes.

As abject as the home side were in that opening 40 it was all turned on its head with what followed.

True, Sam Arnold's red card and Fineen Wycherley's yellow presented a demoralised looking Ulster with a window of opportunity to not only potentially save their own season but also pluck under-pressure Les Kiss from the growing clamour for him to depart.

And they did it. Not that this means the campaign has been turned around, or indeed that it is generally heading in that direction, it's just that winning a game which seemed beyond them at 17-0 has offered some hope that maybe, just maybe, they might be able to translate this dogged desire to win into something more substantial going forward.

Expecting that to be seen on Saturday in the RDS is probably too much to hope for but, going forward, the pivotal meeting with La Rochelle - on Saturday week- will now surely lift them towards believing that staying in the European race isn't the pipe dream it appeared to be in the wake of the Connacht game.

Yes, but the foundations of Ulster's unlikely-looking recovery were laid by Munster going down to 13 men and never having more than 14 on the park in the mad-cap finish.

As open invitations to win a game go, it hardly comes much better than that but, even so, this took more than merely outflanking red shirts with the space that became available.

Ulster had to look deep within themselves to rescue the situation and at its heart stood John Cooney and Christian Leali'ifano.

In some ways, the drama which unfolded on New Year's Day was an embodiment of what Ulster have been about all season, except this time everything was thrown into the heady mix of one game.

There was quality - late call-up Darren Cave's kick through for Craig Gilroy's first try and John Cooney's superb touchline conversion of Gilroy's second to put Ulster in the lead for the first time. Leali'ifano's skip pass for Gilroy's second and then there was Rob Herring still having the gas to race up the outside channel in the last minute to supply Rob Lyttle with the chance to snatch the bonus point so soon after Ulster had carved out a lead for the first time.

And the set-piece work? Shockingly bad in that first half but then with Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst on - why they didn't start wasn't entirely clear - to bring solidity, Ulster had their platform.

Mattie Rea also has to get a mention. On for the under-achieving, but clearly not match-fit Jean Deysel, Rea tore into Munster and also brought some front-foot ball for the home side.

And then there was the bad stuff. If your forwards are incapable of securing set-piece ball to work from then everything simply goes south from there.

And how it did in that opening 40 minutes with both Kyle McCall and Rodney Ah You called ashore at half-time after Ulster's scrum looked close to disintegration.

We had feared for the health of Ulster's set-piece and, sure enough, in the 10th minute their scrum was pinged when Ah You went down.

That led to the sight of Munster marching a rolling maul downfield and the inevitable followed.

At least Munster had to work a bit harder for it than might have been the case when Stuart McCloskey bundled Alex Wooton into touch.

However, the play came back for an earlier penalty and after that it was so easy. Ball to the corner, lineout secured and maul driven over the line through a splintering Ulster defence.

Then they did it again with Niall Scannell getting on the end of both driving mauls as Ulster's attempts at stopping their momentum simply vanished.

Even before Scannell's second, though, it was clear that Ulster's set-piece and general play was a shambles.

After all, Cooney's first half break off a Lyttle pass saw him hauled down short of the line by Simon Zebo with no support.

We also had the mess that was the lineout. Darren O'Shea beat Greg Jones to an Ulster throw on the Munster line and the half ended in ghastly style when another lineout ended up with Rob Herring being sacked.

At that point it looked all over but this game had more twists to come and brought an Ulster win just when we all least expected it.

Who knows what's coming next?

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