Ulster dish out revenge over Munster in hard-fought derby victory
Ulster 19-12 Munster
If the recent wins over Scarlets in Europe showed what Ulster can do when playing something close to their best, last night at Kingspan Stadium was an example of getting the job done when drawn into a bit of an arm wrestle.
The festive interpros can so often throw up what appear to mismatched selections and with Munster making 13 changes to the side that lost to Castres in Europe last week, the biggest crowd of the season so far for Ulster will not have expected their side to make quite such heavy work of a contest that ultimately lacked any real momentum.
Ulster scored three tries - through Rob Herring, Rob Baloucoune and Dave Shanahan - but there wasn't the same impressive zip to their play that had so caught the eye just seven days before, even if their defence and breakdown work was again a strength with the likes of man of the match Marcell Coetzee leading the way.
Those that like a bit of spice to their derby matches at least had a number of instances to lift the heart-rate in a game that occasional threatened to boil over, perhaps sparked by an early moment of contention. Discipline has been a strength of Ulster's play in their recent resurgence but there was a momentary lapse of the senses from Baloucoune straight from the kick-off.
The winger who took the place of Jacob Stockdale in the starting line-up didn't wait for Darren Sweetnam to come back to earth before launching into the Munsterman who was gathering a high ball.
Eleven seconds into the contest, and Ulster would be defending with 14 men. Munster will likely have felt the recklessness warranted a more serious punishment, their frustration compounded no doubt when the same man scored what was the crucial score.
Some less than festive niggle saw a few altercations spark early skirmishes but, when Baloucone returned, the only action on the scoreboard in his absence was a Munster penalty knocked over by JJ Hanrahan when Will Addison was judged to have been offside when coming out of the line. There was a chance for Baloucoune to quickly make up for his early mistake but he couldn't gather a Billy Burns cross-kick that would have given him a race to the line.
A collision with Jean Kleyn wasn't ever likely to end well for John Cooney and indeed it ultimately ended the scrum-half's evening after only 24 minutes. A game that was already lacking much fluidity was hardly to be helped by Ulster losing their influential nine but there was at least some reason to cheer soon after with the game's first try.
In the absence of so many of the Irish international front-liners it was the recent cap Will Addison left to provide the game's first real moment of inspiration.
Picking the ball up deep, the man who has proved such a success since joining from Sale back in the summer in what was then an under-the-radar move, burst through the line.
Sparking the usual excitement around Kingspan Stadium, as he advanced with the ball in two hands, evading Alby Matthewson and Arno Botha as he darted forward. The break didn't immediately bring the reward it deserved when he just couldn't connect with Dave Shanahan but a penalty sent to the corner gave a second chance.
The maul has been such a potent weapon in recent weeks and it proved so again with Herring barrelling over.
The second-half was a similar arm wrestle, with Munster drawing themselves closer thanks to Hanrahan's second penalty.
On the hour mark, the game swung decidedly in Ulster's favour. James Hume, an impressive if brief replacement, matched Addison's moment of quality with a nice break that set up Baloucoune for his score. With five minutes to go, another try via the maul - this time Shanahan the scorer - briefly sparked hope of bonus point but instead it was Munster who's final score brought Munster a consolation.
Ultimately Ulster deserved the win, and Munster were good value for their own reward, even if it won't live long in the memory.
ULSTER: L Ludik; H Speight, W Addison, S McCloskey, R Baloucoune; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Herring (c), M Moore; I Nagle, K Treadwell; S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Replacements: R Best (for, Herring, 52), K McCall (for O'Sullivan, 54), R Kane (for Moore, 55), C Ross, N Timoney (for Reidy, 59), D Shanahan (for Cooney, 24), J McPhillips (for Hume, 64), J Hume (for Ludik, 52)
MUNSTER: M Haley; D Sweetnam, S Arnold, J Taute (c), A Wootton; JJ Hanrahan, A Mathewson; J Loughman, K O'Byrne, S Archer; J Kleyn, D O'Shea; F Wycherley, C Oliver, A Botha.
Replacements: M Sherry (for O'Byrne, 68), D Kilcoyne (for Loughman, 55), C Parker (for Archer, 66), G Coombes (for Kleyn, 66), T O'Donnell (for Oliver, 54), N Cronin (for Matthewson, 54), B Johnston (for Haley, 55), S Daly (for Hanrahan, 62)
Referee: S Gallagher.
Man of the match: M Coetzee