MUNSTER 17 ULSTER 19
Munster and Ulster will both travel for next weekend’s RaboDirect PRO12 semi-finals.
The Irish rivals fought out a typically intense derby affair at Thomond Park, Limerick, to complete the regular season, but it was somewhat scrappy, particularly from the home side, a reflection perhaps in the fact that neither were going to better their finishing third and fourth positions.
Ulster will face Leinster at the RDS, Dublin on Saturday with Munster go to Glasgow on Friday night.
Saturday evening’s win for Ulster in Limerick was a turn-up for the books as head coach, Mark Anscombe, had rested the majority of his players who would feature in the play-offs.
But the shadow team – showing 12 changes from the previous week’s loss to Leinster – produced an impressive display and thoroughly deserved their win against a Munster side who were well below par for most of the game having started strongly.
Munster targeted the Ulster set piece early on, getting into their lineout, but for all their possession their own errors and some stout visiting defence denied them and they were grateful for a 10th minute penalty from outhalf Ian Keatley to put them into a 3-0 lead.
Then within three minutes both teams scored superb tries.
Munster were first to go over when Casey Laulala instigated a move in the midfield after a box kick from James McKinney, James Cloughan and James Downey played their part before scrumhalf Duncan Williams raced clear on the left flank for a try on 14 minutes.
Three minutes later Ulster scrumhalf Michael Heaney made a little break, fed Michael Allen on the right flank and he fed back to Heaney who went in for the try.
The successful conversions from Keatley and McKinney left Munster 10-7 ahead.
It became a competitive second quarter, even it if was scrappy at times from both sides, Munster guilty of some wayward passing, although fullback, Felix Jones was lively and gave the visiting defence some issues.
Allen, playing in the centre made an enterprising break, showing a good turn of pace, but when he was caught by Laulala, he was left exposed and Munster pounced on the released ball with no Ulster support up.
Ulster put a good rumble on towards the home line, but Munster forced the penalty when Paul O’Connell tied Callum Black up. There was concern for the visitors when Williams went down injured and was stretchered off, replaced by Conor Joyce.
The visitors were rewarded for the their dominance when McKinney casually stroked over a 35m penalty to level the score at 10-all on 34 minutes and there may have been a further opportunity but Craig Gilroy foolishly tackled Sean Dougall while still on the ground.
It was the young guns of Ulster who had impressed with centre Stuart McCloskey catching the eye, while Rory Scholes and Andy Warwick had worked hard and Joyce impressed in the loose.
The poor standard of play continued in the second half, from both sides, but Munster were particularly poor and Ulster forced them into error after error. The visitors workrate at the breakdown left Munster scratching their heads.
Munster got their second try of the game however on 48 minutes when Keatley’s grubber kick caught Ulster flatfooted and although winger Simon Zebo was unable to get in, Sean Dougall picked up and dived over. Keatley’s conversion side on the left was superb slotted over into the breeze for a 17-13 advantage.
Ulster rallied again, taking the game to Munster and McKinney’s penalty brought them back to within a point and as they continued to dominate another McKinney penalty put them ahead 19-17.
It was Munster who picked things up and they bombarded the Ulster line, but found it hard to break down the defence. Paul O’Connell looked to have been on for a charge, but he dropped the ball.
The sea of red shirts continued to bombard Ulster, but they found little room from an Ulster side who were not letting a rare win on the road to Limerick slip away.
Replacement centre, JJ Hanrahan snatched at a drop goal which went wide and it looked all over. Ulster had kicked the ball dead after a scrum, but a video review showed Sean Doyle had infringed and Hanrahan teed the ball up on the halfway line into the strong breeze.
There was not to be a final twist, nor was a young Ulster side to be denied as the kick never got anywhere near its target.