How Ulster lived to fight another day with thrilling Munster comeback
Ulster 24 Munster 17
There may be 364 days left in 2018 but if Ulster earn a more unlikely bonus point than Monday evening's over Munster this year, it will be some spectacle.
After last weekend's humbling at the hands of Connacht in Galway, Ulster delayed the implementation of any New Year's resolutions for 40 minutes and an abject first-half had them trailing 17-0 at the break.
But a red card for former Ulsterman Sam Arnold opened the door for a comeback that would have had stratospheric odds just moments before.
Four second-half tries, two of which came from Craig Gilroy, somehow left the hosts with a full haul of points and ensured the festive season didn't leave them completely cut adrift from Conference B pacesetters Leinster and Scarlets.
The game will do nothing to alleviate concerns over the side's consistency - indeed to put together two so disparate halves of rugby sum up much of the side's woes - but will at least lessen the gloom that has been descending upon Kingspan Stadium.
Director of Rugby Les Kiss has had his position increasingly questioned as this season wears on, with matters seemingly just 40 minutes from a nadir last night.
Another loss, with a run of fixtures that reads Leinster, La Rochelle, Wasps before the Six Nations, would have been hard to overcome. While squandered points off the tee, the red card, and, indeed, a previous yellow that had Munster playing with 13 men at one point, all helped Ulster to the most needed of turnarounds, their belated display of character and confidence showed that there is still fight left in this bunch yet.
To start though, it had been missing in action.
Even with both Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale absent, along with a host of injured front-liners, it had been a first-half performance so far from the required standard that any excuses were rendered moot.
Munster themselves were missing the likes of Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray but at the outset it seemed all they required was a functioning set-piece to seize a decided advantage.
Their back-row appeared a real area of strength coming into the contest and, indeed, the breakdown yielded an early penalty from a kickable position.
JJ Hanrahan, starting in place of the in-form Ian Keatley, would miss from the tee, the first of three errant kicks that, even if nobody believed it then, would prove decisive.
Ulster's ill-discipline meant Munster would have plenty more chances though, and they opened the scoring through a rolling maul, while a malfunctioning set-piece was doing the struggling hosts no favours
With Munster enjoying nearly 70% of the territory, and bossing both the scrum and line-out, it was no surprise that when the next points arrived, they again went to Johann Van Graan's men.
It was a case of deja vu when Munster mauled their way over for a second time, Niall Scannell again doing the honours from his position at the base.
The ease with which Munster produced their two tries out of touch were in stark contrast to Ulster's line-out efforts, Darren O'Shea's steal in the corner robbing them of their best chance of a first-half response.
With no comparison to be made between the two packs, when Munster's scrum brought a penalty try after just half an hour it was already a contender for most predictable score of the year.
Both sides spurned points before the break but, with the score at 17-0, it hardly seemed it would matter.
The game may have been only halfway through but those expecting a response after last week were already sure it was not forthcoming.
Not for the first time this season though, when only the most partisan of supporters saw hope, Ulster summoned a performance seemingly from nowhere.
They immediately set about putting their visitors under more pressure in the second-half, and a yellow card for Fineen Wycherley gave the faintest hint of an opening. Still, though, the cynics far outnumbered the optimists on a cold night.
The game would turn on a sixpence moments later when Darren Cave kick-started the rescue mission. The centre, who only started when Louis Ludik was ruled out late, may well have thought his try was about to be chalked off when the TMO was called for again, but instead this time it was to check on a tackle from Arnold. After some deliberation a red card was dished out for the high hit.
With Munster down to 13, the pendulum had swung in Ulster's favour and in a matter of minutes they were over again.
This time the revitalised Cave was the creator as he produced a delicate chip through to unlock the defence and, while there was still plenty for Gilroy to do, the winger got his fingertips to the ball and spun over.
Munster, now back to 14, actually came again, but Ulster were by now more sure in the set-piece and, with six minutes remaining took the lead for the first time.
Leali'ifano sent Gilroy away in the corner smartly, with Cooney's fine conversion breaking a 17-17 knot.
There was still time for a scare when a mess was made of the restart but, with the clock red, the impressive Rob Lyttle rounded things off with the bonus point score.
Such a comeback, stirring as it was, will surely fool nobody into thinking a solution to their first half struggles has been found, but after it certainly felt like this was a season unravelling, Ulster live to fight another day.
Ulster - C Piutau; C Gilroy, L Ludik, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; C Leali'ifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring (capt), R Ah You; A O'Connor, K Treadwell; G Jones, N Timoney, J Deysel.
Replacements: A McBurney, C Black (for McCall, 40), W Herbst (for Ah You, 40), R Diack (for Treadwell, 75), M Rea (for Deysel, 45), P Marshall, J McPhillips, A Trimble.
Munster - S Zebo; C Nash, K Earls, S Arnold, A Wootton;JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; D O'Shea, B Holland (capt); T O'Donnell, C Cloete, J O'Donoghue.
Replacements: K O'Byrne (for N Scanell, 53), R Loughman (for Cronin, 60) S Archer (for Ryan, 50), F Wycherley (for Holland, 22), R Copeland (for O'Donnell, 63), B Johnston (for Zebo, 75), R O'Mahony (for Nash, 40), J Hart,
Ref - S Gallagher (IRFU)
Man of the match: John Cooney (Uls)