One down, two to go for Ulster at fortress Ravenhill
Ulster knew before Saturday’s night’s Magners League clash with Munster that they faced three make or break weeks.
With two Magners League games and a Heineken Cup match at Ravenhill Ulster are tasked with turning their home back into the fortress it once was.
Glasgow had inflicted defeat on Brian McLaughlin’s men in their last home league outing but part one of the job was done as the defending Magners League champions, Munster, were beaten 15-10 in front of a sell-out crowd.
The win lifts Ulster two places in the table but more importantly closes the gap on Munster in fourth to three points.
Flanker Thomas Anderson probably summed up the Ulster performance by stating “good teams win bad”.
It’s a fair assessment. Ulster had put in a better performance at the RDS a week earlier but came away without even the consolation of a losing bonus point; against Munster they had to absorb long periods of pressure but were able to get the win.
The big difference in a week was that Ulster were clinical when the chances presented themselves.
Simon Danielli is a world-class finisher and he showed it twice against Munster in what were Ulster’s only real try-scoring opportunities.
The Scottish speedster has now scored 19 tries in 36 starts for Ulster. His first on Saturday was opportunist, his second was applying the finish to a well-worked move from a lineout when he combined with Andrew Trimble.
If there was one area of concern for Ulster from the game it was the fact they scored all their points in the first 22 minutes and, despite having a 15-0 lead, they were holding on at the end. But they are the kind of games on which championships are won and at the end of the day all that matters is getting the victory points.
Once again Ulster’s dominance at the scrum was curtailed by a whistle-happy referee.
BJ Botha provided his usual stability on the Ulster tight-head side but it was on the other side where the fun and games were occurring.
It was a battle of the Irish props with Ulster’s Tom Court up against Munster’s Tony Buckley and both trying to push their claims for a place in Declan Kidney’s Six Nations squad.
Court had the upper hand and is a better scrummager than Buckley. The Munster man seemed to be having trouble with his binding but it was Ulster who were punished on several occasions.
Ulster’s discipline has also improved in the last few weeks; against Leinster they allowed only three points from a kickable penalty and it was the same against Munster.
Paul Warwick kicked one penalty and his other shots at goal were from long range although he did strike the upright with one opportunity.
Another positive Ulster can take from the game was their defence.
They limited Munster to one fortuitous try and basically spent the last 10 minutes defending their own ‘22’, Jean De Villers profiting from a spilled ball to cross the Ulster line.
Jamie Smith, after an impressive debut at Leinster, looked comfortable and assured again at full back and dealt brilliantly with one pass from Ian Humphreys that put him under pressure behind his own try line.
Twice Munster captain Mick O’Driscoll looked poised to score but twice big hits in the Ulster defence dislodged the ball.
Niall O’Connor put in a last-gasp try-saving tackle on James Coughlan as the Munster No 8 exploded from the base of the scrum and, in the last play, Doug Howlett nearly carved a winning try for the visitors but a blanket defence snuffed it out.
Not the best performance of the season but if Ulster win all of their games like that for the rest of the season nobody will be complaining.