Munster 18 Ulster 13
Such is the quasi horse-trading that so often occurs in festive interpros, their effect on the United Rugby Championship table is often minimal.
Dictated by the necessity of the IRFU’s Player Welfare Programme, more often than not teams will play their stronger side at home and a rotated one away with predictable match results. Subsequently, how the standings shape up heading into the January European break is traditionally very much as you were.
The raft of postponements over Christmas, and their knock-on effect in team selection, though gave us what in football parlance would have been termed a ‘six-pointer.’ Ulster versus Munster in Thomond Park was a concertina of a game, poised to either expand or contract the race for the top four.
Going in, Ulster were five points clear of their southern rivals having played a game more.
After 15 minutes on Saturday evening, with the northern province both seven points and a man to the good after Rob Herring’s early try was swiftly followed by a red card for Simon Zebo, it was conceivable that by the end of the night their advantage in the table could even be doubled.
Instead, it sits at just two points with Dan McFarland’s squad now actually having one more loss than the men in red.
Steeled by their winger’s dismissal and led by a performance from Tadhg Beirne so complete that it would have led you to believe that multiple Munster men were wearing his distinctive blue scrum-cap, Johann van Graan’s under-fire side outscored their opponents three times over from that once-seemingly decisive moment. And while Ulster could manage only two penalties over the course of 65 minutes against 14 men, Munster offered a stark contrast as they quickly struck for a score while Kieran Treadwell was in the bin that set up Alex Kendellen’s late match-winner.
With the season's present structure – and all usual pandemic-related caveats still apply –rewarding a top four finish with a home quarter-final, the importance of such jostling for position is clear. And with surprise leaders Edinburgh showing huge strides in attack under first-year head coach Mike Blair, and both Glasgow and Ospreys improving too, an intriguing race is shaping up through the remainder of the winter and into the spring.
When all is said and done, Ulster will hope they are not left ruing their inability to add Munster to their already impressive collection of away day scalps this year.
The league, at least, allows for some margin of error. While the loss on Saturday will sting as a missed opportunity, there remain ten games to make up for it.
The same cannot be said for the Champions Cup which rolls around again this weekend with Ulster heading to Franklin’s Gardens to take on Northampton on Sunday afternoon.
The province made a near perfect start to the pool stages last month, beating Clermont away before taking the bonus-point win over the Saints back in Belfast. Indeed, they are the only side in Pool A to have won two games on the pitch, although Racing 92 do have a maximum haul having been awarded a 28-0 win when their game with Ospreys was cancelled due to Covid-19 cases in the Welsh side.
Last season, it was an away day in England that halted Ulster’s run of consecutive appearances in the knock-out stages of Europe’s top competition, the squandering of a winning position against Gloucester in Kingsholm looming larger than anyone could have guessed when the final two rounds of the pool stages were nixed.
In a competition so sure to be influenced by Covid-19 and its related restrictions, that loss should offer a reminder that, in this year of all years, nothing can be taken for granted as your fate can be taken out of your own hands in an instant.
Still outside the play-off places despite Saturday’s commanding win over the Newcastle Falcons, Saints are already likely devoting greater care and attention to domestic matters having returned just one point from their opening two pool games.
Heading back to a ground where they won in the second-tier Challenge Cup last season, the varying degrees of motivation here would seem to indicate that the visitors are well placed to add to the top table scalps already enjoyed over Bath, Harlequins and Leicester during their head coach’s tenure.
As they look to learn their lessons from this latest loss, Ulster know that to come home kicking themselves again this week would have a far greater detrimental effect upon their season.
Munster Rugby: M Haley; S French, C Farrell, R Scannell, S Zebo; J Crowley, C Casey; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; T Ahern, F Wycherley; T Beirne, J Hodnett, G Coombes.
Replacements: J Wycherley (for Kilcoyne, 51), D Barron (for N Scannell, 51), J Ryan (for Archer, 45), S Daly (for French, 45), B Healy (for Crowley, 62), A Kendellen (for Hodnett, 62), J O'Donoghue (for Ahern, 64), N Cronin (for Casey, 72)
Ulster Rugby: M Lowry; C Gilroy, B Moxham, J Hume, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, T O'Toole; A O'Connor, S Carter; G Jones, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: N Doak (for Cooney, 23), A Warwick (for McGrath, 45), K Treadwell (for Carter, 45), M Rea (for Jones, 62), A Curtis (for J Hume, 62), J Andrew (for Herring, 77), R Kane (for O'Toole,77), R Lyttle (for Gilroy, 77)
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)
Man of the match: Tadhg Beirne (Munster)
Match rating: 6/10