Ulster get party started early
Ulster 33-17 Munster : It was exactly what was required as Ulster delivered the perfect result with their bonus point win over Munster keeping their PRO12 top four hopes very much alive on a night when they really had to stand tall.
Ian Humphreys led the way with 15 points from a try, two conversions and two penalties while their other scores came from Stefan Terblanche, John Afoa and Ruan Pienaar in front of a sell-out crowd at a heaving Ravenhill which wanted to party at the end of festive week.
And they got what they wanted after some early wobbles had been overcome and Ulster, dominant up front, ground the life out a diluted Munster side.
Ulster came into this vital clash determined to not only grind out this all-important League result but also deliver the perfect back-up to Boxing Day's 42-13 defeat to Leinster when what was essentially a Ravens team was put out on the RDS paddock.
Though that youthful side acquitted itself better than had been anticipated, it was still a resounding defeat on an occasion when Brian McLaughlin's squad faced the rather ridiculous scheduling of two games in four days.
Munster were also in the same position after seeing off Connacht last Monday and, as a result, Tony McGahan had shuffled his deck accordingly for Ravenhill.
Ulster got on the scoreboard first, after six minutes, when Humphreys landed a 40-metre penalty after Munster had strayed offside from an Ian Keatley up and under - a familiar tactic from the visitors even though they were playing into the first-half breeze.
The hope was that this would settle the home side down but the opposite happened and the visitors with skipper Mick O'Driscoll and Stephen Archer helped carry the ball into Ulster's '22' and Keatley hoisted a crosskick to the unmarked Luke O'Dea who made the corner and was awarded the score after referee Alain Rolland went upstairs.
Keatley then nailed a great conversion and Munster led 7-3. The home side needed to hit back and did so when a rare incursion into the Munster '22' saw the visitors stray offside and Humphreys delivered with the fairly straightforward penalty.
Then just before the half hour a great Darren Cave break saw him feed Stefan Terblanche and the former Springbok slid in at the left corner to give Ulster the lead, with a try on his first start for his adopted province, which was then stretched by two further points from Humphreys' conversion.
Keatley then put Munster 13-10 behind with a 29th minute penalty that came in off the post but was then wide with another effort five minutes later.
This spurred Ulster into action and Terblanche began a move which saw Ulster spin the ball right and then left with the South African stepping inside from Paddy McCallister's pass. The ball was recycled though and John Afoa barged over from close range.
Humphreys added the extras and Ulster were 20-10 to the good after 36 minutes.
Four minutes after the restart and Ulster struck again this time after Munster had won a free kick from a lineout and opted for the scrum. Ulster put in a huge shove and Willie Faloon emptied Duncan Williams which saw the ball go loose.
Humphreys then hacked it through and managed to follow it up to score to the right of the posts from just outside the '22'. However, the outhalf then managed to miss the conversion and Ulster now led 25-10.
He then saw a 49th minute penalty rebound off the post and stay out however Ulster grabbed their bonus point score five minutes later and it again came from a disrupted scrum with Chris Henry this time burying Williams to allow Ruan Pienaar to pick up and run in from just inside the Munster half.
Humphreys missed the difficult conversion from the left corner but Ulster now led 30-10. The game then lost a bit of pattern as both sides began to empty their benches though a worrying sign for Ulster was McCallister being helped off just after the hour.
Humphreys was also removed from the action just before the 70 minute mark which saw Pienaar move to out half just as he had done at Aironi and the South African then took over the kicking duties and slotted a 74th minute effort to stretch Ulster's lead to 33-10.
Munster's Johne Murphy crept over for a consolation score right at death which Keatley converted.