Munster 18 Ulster 13
Ulster have secured a pair of impressive away wins already this season but will return from Limerick wondering how they failed to make it a memorable hat-trick last night.
Despite having already stormed the twin fortresses of the RDS and Stade Marcel Michelin, the Covid-19 situation that had afflicted their squad over the past number of weeks meant they headed to Thomond Park more in hope than expectation. And yet, having been able to name a strong team on Friday afternoon and then taken an early lead through Rob Herring’s mauled try, things were trending positively.
When Munster’s Simon Zebo was sent off after only a quarter of an hour for a high tackle on Mike Lowry, only one winner was to be expected.
From that point on though, Ulster could muster only six further points from two penalties while one other effort from the tee came up short.
Against 14 men, the visitors never consistently made the most of their advantage while, in contrast, Munster quickly scored one of their two tries when replacement lock Kieran Treadwell was in the sin bin.
Call it game management, call it street-smarts or call it that little bit of nous, whatever was lacking in this Ulster display ensured that a red card which should have tipped the game firmly in their favour instead galvanised Munster.
While there were opportunities that went begging in the second half — with the maul such a weapon, lineout turnovers loom all the larger, while there was another instance of crossing in a good position — this was not a game where there were any qualms about the result.
Munster took their first lead in the 77th minute, through a try-scorer in Alex Kendellen who had been 24th man until Peter O’Mahony was injured in the build-up, while the game’s most dominant player Tadhg Beirne had been due to only be a replacement.
But their response to last week’s dismal loss to Connacht and the early adversity meant there was nothing lucky about the outcome.
For Ulster, the question will be how they failed to turn such an encouraging opening 15 minutes into four or even five points.
Conditions were poor but the scrappy arm wrestle that the game descended into surely suited the men facing into the wind and rain a man light and, even if the judging of a decision to kick can often come down to its execution, there were too many times when it felt like Ulster played into Munster’s hands.
Long before Kendellen’s try, it had become clear that even if the visitors were to win it was to be a struggle.
“It can be but we’re mature enough to have been better at doing those things,” said the head coach Dan McFarland when asked if such game-management and in-game adjustments were the difference in more experienced sides.
“It wasn’t that we needed to switch from Plan A to Plan B. Tactically we were right, strategically we were right. It was in the execution of the tactics that we got it wrong. Whether it was choosing to do it one way or another, I think that’s an area of the game we are developing, our ability to make those nuanced decisions in the moment.
“The strategy that the guys were employing in the second half was working for us. We just needed to persist with it and make sure we did it correctly.”
Of further concern will be the injuries suffered to John Cooney and James Hume, two men Ulster would hate to lose for next week’s crucial trip to face Northampton in the Champions Cup.
With 14 men having been absent for this one, a lengthening of the injury list is all McFarland needs but the head coach was using neither his absentees nor the recent wave of Covid-19 that tore through his squad as an excuse for this third loss of the campaign.
“A little bit of smarts, potentially a little bit of energy off not having played for two weeks,” he said was what was lacking. “You could argue we lost some sharpness but I’m not convinced.”
Whatever the reason, this failure to win on a ground where they last tasted victory almost eight years ago will feel like a missed opportunity.
Munster: 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: 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: M Adamson (SRU) Star man: T Beirne (MUN)