Outstanding Ulster on top form again as they kick off new year with bonus point win over Munster
Ulster 38 Munster 17
The interpros offered Ulster little neighbourly cheer a year ago but their festive slate this time sees them launching them into the new year.
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A strong Munster line-up were well-beaten in Belfast, Ulster's third try-bonus of this derby trio sealed by Stuart McCloskey before the hour mark.
If the big centre was one man certainly putting his hand up, another was John Cooney, who again had his fingerprints all over the victory that saw Dan McFarland's men extend their unbeaten run at Kingspan Stadium to 19 games.
While it seemed a long time prior when the final whistle sounded, the visitors had actually taken the lead after a quickfire opening.
In the early stages, Ulster's lineout offered cause for concern, while the northern province's back-three were left under no illusions that this was to be a busy night aerially.
Box-kicks were the order of the opening exchanges with further probing kicks to touch putting strain on an initially shaky piece.
It was off a scrum that the visitors would score the game's first points, Conor Murray putting Joey Carbery down the short-side with Ulster's defence frozen by Rory Scannell's dummy line.
The fit-again Carbery gave the ball to full-back Shane Daly, who danced through the tackle of the otherwise impressive McCloskey before rolling across Matty Rea and the whitewash.
Ulster looked for a quick response through the maul only to find Fineen Wycherley adept at spoiling but Cooney at least was afforded the chance to cut the deficit soon after with his first successful penalty of the night thanks to a good jackal from Marty Moore.
And it was the mercurial scrum-half who soon had his side in the lead. Getting no change at scrum-time, a Munster knock on in the home side's own half looked a far from ideal place to launch an attack, but Jacob Stockdale's pace saw them escape up the left touchline as he blew by Carbery.
Looking primed for a trademark chip and chase, the returning Irish international instead was aware of Cooney on his inside shoulder. In a rich vein of scoring form, the 29-year-old was not going to let such an opportunity pass him by, one step inside Keith Earls enough to see him away and under the posts before converting his own score for good measure.
A high shot on NicK Timoney had them back on the attack again in the same corner on the half hour mark only for Daly to get fingertips to the crossfield kick aimed at Rob Baloucoune by Billy Burns.
With penalty advantage in their back-pocket, Ulster took a scrum and were left bemused that neither Rory Scannell or Conor Murray were shown yellow cards for cynical interventions.
They did belatedly get their reward though, Baloucoune getting his second in as many games when Luke Marshall drew two defenders before threading through his pass.
A vital score in the context of their period of supremacy, Cooney made light work of ensuring it would be a full seven pointer with the conversion from the right side.
Munster would get a penalty at the death to go in just one score down at the half, fortunate too, perhaps, to still have 14 on the field to begin the second.
It would matter little to Ulster upon the resumption of play, the victors getting off to the best possible start. There were only three minutes gone after the turn when, attacking off a rapidly solidifying line-out, Rea could hardly believe his luck as he cantered through a gap unopposed to the try-line.
From their shaky beginnings, all of a sudden the chase was on the bonus-point. A spell of rare Munster pressure followed, broken up by another Moore turnover, while tempers briefly flared twice in succession robbing the game of much rhythm.
Still, Ulster got the job done impressively early, getting the all-important fourth score a few minutes before the hour mark.
Moments after the second fracas, Alan O'Connor rose to pinch the Munster line-out and Timoney was first on the scene to earn a penalty. With no doubts about where the ball was going, Burns duly sent it to the corner where Henderson took the lineout.
Again they were made to batter themselves against the line and it was fitting that McCloskey was the man who eventually forced his way over.
A fifth scoring-bonus in their last six games, the greater incision called for by coaches after these sides last met back in November at Thomond Park now on full show.
Bonus-point in the bag and some 21-points to the good, things would get even better for the hosts when Stockdale picked the pocket of Sammy Arnold and ran home unimpeded from inside his own half.
Ending the first try drought of his career in some style, the winger dived gleefully between the posts for his first Ulster score since the win over Racing here almost 12 months ago.
Munster would maul their way over for a response that was far too little and far too late, Ulster having long ensured that they will return to European action against Clermont with a spring very much in their step.
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