Ulster will have to step things up for Europe, says McFarland
Munster 22 Ulster 16
There was no doubting this was really a Curate's egg of a game for both sides. But for Ulster, the mixture of good and bad ended up cluttering the landscape of this first inter-provincial of the season.
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That they didn't end up shipping a pile of points as in September 2018 wasn't really relevant - and was never really likely anyway after the noises being made by the Ulster camp in the lead-in - as the most striking feature of this occasion was that Dan McFarland's side might actually have won rather than collect their losing bonus point.
And therein lies the rub. With the Cheetahs losing at Cardiff Blues, Ulster did manage to stay second in Conference A, as they head to Europe for the next two weeks, but that fails to provide much consolation after Rob Herring and co fought back from trailing 15-6 to lead but then still lost this typically no-quarter-given Irish derby.
The problem was again Ulster's dreaded inconsistency. When they were good, they played with some power and intelligence but then when they were bad it was as if another team in white was on the Thomond Park sod.
"To put yourself in a position where at 63 or 64 minutes you are a point ahead (16-15) and the game is there for you and then to lose it is really disappointing," said McFarland.
"It was pretty intense and for large parts of that game we were physically excellent.
"But ultimately we turned the ball over in contact too much. Not handling errors, and not passing errors, just in the bang and bash of contact. If you do that you feed opportunities for Munster to get on the front foot and they did more than us."
Losing this, the second game of the season, rightly hurt even though few had expected Ulster to win in Limerick.
"I felt that if we had held onto the ball we were threatening enough to be able to cause them problems," McFarland added.
"I was proud of our physicality and I was proud of our set-piece. That went well against a really excellent scrum and maul.
"We'll take bits and pieces from that but we're really disappointed with the loss."
Ulster showed from the get-go that they simply weren't going to be bullied by a Munster pack containing Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander, Niall Scannell and Jean Kleyn, who were all playing their first game since the World Cup, as well as the fact that Johann van Graan had split his bench 6-2 in favour of forward grunt.
And this Ulster physicality was amply seen by an ultra fired-up Jack McGrath.
Other than Stander's 14th-minute try, when the No.8, with some help from Kleyn, bludgeoned his way through what seemed a well-set Ulster defensive shape, the visitors were largely up for the collisions and able to put it about at a lot of the set-piece work where Herring had a feisty evening with Niall Scannell.
Indeed, Herring's second-half score was a clever ploy as Ulster made ground from Munster's much looser discipline.
A penalty kicked to the corner inevitably led to a lineout and maul and when flanker Chris Cloete couldn't help himself but join it, the Ulster skipper spun off and bashed his way through two less physical Munster defenders to score.
Stuart McCloskey's return was marked by a decent showing - his early charge from a long throw over the lineout set an early marker - and he could have really terrified Munster with his 78th-minute intercept had man of the match Rory Scannell, who scored Munster's second try, not brought him down.
Marty Moore's first game of the season was an encouraging one as well.
But then there was the bad. Jacob Stockdale's first showing for Ulster after Japan wasn't exactly vintage and his first-half charged down kick led to pandemonium in the backfield and a five metre scrum which Stander ultimately scored from.
With Ulster trying to claw their way back into the game early in the second half - they trailed 15-6 - they lost two attacking lineouts in quick succession after, for some strange reason, throwing the ball to the front where O'Mahony took both with ease.
Then, just after the hour, with John Cooney already having kicked them into a 16-15 lead, Ulster clearly had the bit between their teeth when the scrum-half missed a long-range effort.
No problem there but moments later after Stockdale had won a high kick, young out-half Angus Curtis tried to feed a runner in midfield only for McCloskey to knock-on after Luke Marshall ran what seemed to be an unexpected line.
The miscommunication became a game changer as a minute later Munster's replacement fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal threw an inside pass to Andrew Conway and the Ireland back-three player surged past Sam Carter and torched Matt Faddes and Stockdale for the game's winning score.
Such margins. But from muscling their way back into it, the momentum had significantly shifted back to the side in red.
Maybe it was tiredness. After all, Ulster made twice as many tackles as Munster in a game where the visitors had significantly less possession and territory with McCloskey, Cooney and Curtis accounting for a combined total of 35 hits.
Now it's Europe and going to Bath on Saturday where, hopefully, Iain Henderson, Billy Burns and Marcell Coetzee will play.
"We go from one European fortress to another," said McFarland. "We'll have to step it up a gear.
A busy week awaits.