Ulster dig deep for derby win
Ulster 20 Munster 19:A PULSATING contest, a rip-roaring tale, embellished with enough plot twists to keep the 10,397 supporters at Ravenhill riveted right through an elongated end-game that threatened to shred the nerves.
Munster rumbled into view of the Ulster posts, trailing 20-19 and trying to engineer a drop-goal opportunity for replacement Ronan O’Gara. Munster fans hoped for the best, offering silent exhortations that he could emulate the feats of the Northampton Saints and Castres games last season; Ulster’s faithful feared the worst.
There were a couple of occasions when O’Gara dropped back into the pocket, shaping to define the outcome. Instead the ball was moved on, or wide; red shirts rumbling and recycling as they searched out better field position. It never came. Instead Ulster turned over the ball to pen an escape clause.
The rugby may have been occasionally sloppy but the tension compensated adequately. As Mark Anscombe observed in the aftermath. “You’ve got to be satisfied when you beat a team like Munster. We know we have plenty of areas to improve on but you have to enjoy your wins. I was very worried until the last second of the game. I don’t think there was one minute of the 80 that I wasn’t (worried).”
There was enough in the contest for his Munster counterpart Rob Penney to assuage the immediate disappointment of defeat. He pointed out: “I am really proud of our boys. We didn’t play perfect rugby but I can’t fault the endeavour. Some good things happened and we will go from there.”
Ulster looked to start quickly but instead were undermined by a cornucopia of errors, including a turnover courtesy of the new five second rule at a ruck; Paul Marshall guilty of dawdling.
He wasn’t alone. Andrew Trimble and Lewis Stevenson were penalised on for not releasing in the tackle, Darren Cave and John Afoa both spilling ball in contact. Ian Keatley kicked a brace of penalties, the second a fine effort from long range and also dropped a neat goal after the visitors had driven a lineout impressively and then patiently engineered field position.
Munster were full value for their lead, dominating their opponents at the breakdown to pilfer possession. The home side reduced the deficit to 9-3 with a penalty from Paddy Jackson and on 17 minutes, a moment of individual excellence from fullback Jared Payne, should have led to an Ulster try.
He shimmied his way past a couple of would-be tacklers, accelerated into space and linked with Andrew Trimble. The Irish wing was grounded a couple of metres short of the Munster line but his pop-up pass was a little unsympathetic in velocity to the supporting Paul Marshall and the scrumhalf knocked the ball forward into the in-goal area.
Payne was the catalyst again soon after as it was his quick thinking to take a quick throw to Trimble just short of the halfway line, accepting the return pass and scampering up the touchline. Keatley showed impressive pace to get back and make the tackle just outside the Munster 22. Jackson hit a post with a second penalty but landed his third attempt to make it a three point game.
Munster lost Luke O’Dea to a leg injury on 25 minutes but his replacement, Keith Earls, had a significant impact three minutes before the interval. James Coughlan made a break down the left touchline and when the ball was swept to the far side of the pitch, courtesy of some sharp, accurate handling, including a one-handed offload from Casey Laulala; Denis Hurley’s inside pass allowed Earls to score.
In contrast, Ulster’s back play was too deep and lateral, unable to commit defenders.
The visitors conceded a penalty in first-half injury-time, which Jackson landed to leave his side trailing 16-9 at the interval. Ulster’s one clear area of dominance was in the scrum and it was to indirectly lead to another penalty opportunity, which Jackson posted from 38 metres, three minutes after the re-start.
It was apposite that Payne should be the Ulster player that allowed his side to bridge the gap. His try on 50 minutes was a homily in team dynamic terms to the cohesion, hard running, and variety in terms of the point of attack that the home side had chased all evening.
Ulster had two glorious chances to score tries following the sin binning of Munster flanker Seán Dougall but the visitors showed impressive grit to turn over a scrum, one man down, and then force another contact error from the opposition under their own posts.
Ulster’s turnover rate continued unabated and Munster first grabbed possession and then position to allow Keatley to drop a second goal. They lost the excellent Casey Laulala – O’Gara came on – and it required a back line shuffle of significant proportions.
The ebb and flow of fortune made for a riveting spectacle. Munster transgressed at a scrum, the 20-year-old Jackson showed great composure to land the penalty from 38 metres; it was all a precursor to that wonderfully, fraught conclusion.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 2 mins: Keatley penalty, 0-3; 7: Keatley penalty, 0-6; 12: Keatley drop goal 0-9; 15: Jackson penalty, 3-9; 35: Jackson penalty, 6-9; 37: Earls try, Keatley conversion, 6-16; 40 (+1): Jackson penalty. Half-time: Ulster 9 Munster 16. 43: Jackson penalty, 12-16; 50: Payne try, 17-16; 65: Keatley drop goal, 17-19; 68: Jackson penalty, 20-19.
ULSTER: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, N Brady, J Afoa; J Muller, L Stevenson; S Ferris, S Doyle, N Williams. Replacements: C Gilroy for Cave (54 mins), R Herring for Brady (61 mins), N McComb for Stevenson, M McComish for Doyle (both 68 mins).
MUNSTER: Hurley, Howlett, Laulala, Downey, O’Dea, Keatley, Williams, Kilcoyne, Varley, Botha, D O’Callaghan, Holland, D O’Callaghan, Dougall, Coughlan. Replacements: K Earls for O’Dea (25 mins), T O’Donnell for Coughlan (38 mins), C Murray for Williams, M Sherry for Varley (both 52 mins), M Horan for Kilcoyne (61 mins), S Archer for Botha (68), R O’Gara for Laulala (70 mins), Sin bin: Dougall (55 mins).
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).