Wasteful Ulster lack ruthless touch
Munster 22 Ulster 20
When all was said and done in Limerick on Saturday night, the Guinness PRO12 play-off picture was clearer than it has been for some time.
For Ulster, even after failing to beat Munster for a sixth time in a row, they can now be sure that wins in their last two games will yield a fifth consecutive semi-final, with Scarlets and Ospreys in the same boat.
Saturday week's meeting between the latter and Les Kiss's men at the Liberty Stadium has the feeling of a straight shootout.
That such a scenario would have occurred regardless of events in Thomond Park on Saturday will likely be of little solace to Ulster after they lost another game they really should have won.
The result was confirmed when the visitors failed to get properly set for a last gasp drop goal attempt and Paddy Jackson's rushed effort didn't trouble the posts.
That such high dramatics would have been required for a win was largely due to the northern province's failure to make the most of their opportunities.
While Rory Best and Luke Marshall both crossed the whitewash, with Jackson converting on each occasion and adding two penalties, other gilt-edged openings were allowed to go begging.
For all the talk of producing a reaction to the prior weekend's disappointing draw with Cardiff, the play-off hopefuls had no problems with attitude, but application.
Whether it was a two on one that failed to stick, Munster scoring after a ball booted dead from the half-way line, or a wayward effort off the tee, Ulster left plenty of points on the pitch.
While forwards coach Allen Clarke could not fault the effort of the players, he admitted the need to be more clinical has been an all too familiar refrain this season.
"I thought from a coaching perspective the mentality of our players was bang on," said the 1999 European Cup winner.
"There's been a real edge and intensity but we need to couple it with precision in those key points of the game.
"We worked hard for our scores but we didn't convert the way we would have liked at times and that's frustrating.
"We had enough to win the game.
"I have faith in the team, I have faith in these boys that we're going to be in the mix and we might be back here (in a semi-final), who knows?
"I think the fillip of all of it is that Ospreys were beaten by Cardiff so we're very much in the mix and probably before we came here we didn't expect that."
Clarke did concede that perhaps Ulster needed to display more patience in the game's final seconds to work a better position for Jackson to attempt the drop goal.
"On reflection, we weren't ideally set," he added. "Our 10 had been involved in a clean out so maybe we should have worked a few more phases and worked it towards the poles.
"We could have put pressure on them because they wouldn't have wanted to give away a penalty. For us, maybe it summed up where we were in the game because we had good chances and didn't convert."
While Munster's final try from Dave O'Callaghan provided the telling blow, it was perhaps the host's first that was of most interest to Ulster supporters.
Shortly after Best's mauled effort had gotten the play-off chasers off to a perfect start, Peter O'Mahony easily evaded a flailing arm from Charles Piutau and set in motion a move that ended with Angus Lloyd scampering over.
The young scrum-half had started the season with Ulster on a development deal, making one appearance off the bench in the win against Scarlets earlier this season.
Deemed surplus to requirements in Belfast, he was sent on a short-term loan to Munster in November in a deal later extended to the end of the campaign.
Ironically cup-tied when these two sides met in the British and Irish Cup last month but free to play this weekend, Lloyd came into the team late after Duncan Williams went down with a groin injury, and drew praise from both coach and captain.
"I thought he was quality," said O'Mahony. "It was a big occasion for him, obviously, having been with Ulster and to put in a performance like for 50 minutes was very impressive."
Added Rassie Erasmus: "I think it was a solid performance against a world-class nine (Ruan Pienaar).
"We can be as happy as we can be with two nines who suddenly slotted in out of nowhere. It's tough to slot in and play a pressure game. I think they can be proud of themselves, it was definitely not flawless but it was gutsy."
Munster: Zebo, Sweetnam, Saili, Scannell, Earls; Keatley, Lloyd; Kilcoyne, N Scannell, Ryan; Ryan, Holland; O'Mahony (capt), O'Donnell, O'Donoghue
Replacements: Conway (for Sweetnam, 1), Bylendaal (for Keatley, 44), J Deysel (for O'Donaghue, 44), Griesel (for Lloyd, 50), Cronin (for Kilcoyne, 56), O'Callaghan (for Ryan, 60), Archer (for Ryan, 66), Marshall (R Scannell, 66)
Ulster: Stockdale; Trimble (capt), Marshall, Olding, Piutau; Jackson, Pienaar; Warwick, Best, Herbst; Treadwell, O'Connor; Henderson, Henry, S Reidy.
Replacements: Ross (for Henry, 28), Herring (for Best, 50), McCloskey (for Olding, 50), Gilroy (for Piutau, 60), Black (for Warwick, 62), Diack (for Ross, 69), Ah You (for Herbst, 70)
Referee: Marius Mitrea
Man of the match: Keith Earls