Rivals Ulster and Munster wind up drawing short straw

Prospect of home semi-final recedes for the provinces after sides share spoils

Ulster’s Iain Henderson challenges for a loose ball with Munster’s Keith Earls at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ulster’s Iain Henderson challenges for a loose ball with Munster’s Keith Earls at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Ulster 23 Munster 23

The only set of results which could contrive to leave the two Irish contenders third and fourth, and thereby potentially miss out on a home semi-final, was duly completed when these two served out a cracking draw. However, as draws often do, this one probably left both feeling a little hollow, not least because it left them third and fourth, and depending on results elsewhere to obtain a home semi-final.

Ulster, on form, have been the best Irish side to watch this season, and they were the more adventurous and expansive here, but they will ruefully reflect on how they failed to avail of at least four clear-cut try scoring chances. Home team and crowd alike were again left seething with a sense of injustice over yet another red card for one of their players – following on from those handed out to Jared Payne and Tom Court against Saracens and Leinster here at the end of last season – as Iain Henderson’s dismissal compounded a two-to-one penalty count against Ulster.

A home semi-final is now out of both teams’ hands, but particularly so for Ulster, who have the toughest assignment away to Glasgow. Even if they won, they would need Munster to lose at home to the Dragons or Connacht to beat the Ospreys.

Smooth service

Henderson had given another immense performance, high in carries, physicality and work-rate – as typified by a 50-metre race back to deny Keith Earls a breakaway try – and, operating off Ruan Pienaar’s smooth service, the in-form Paddy Jackson orchestrated his gifted backline with variety and style.

Darren Cave and Jared Payne ran good lines off him, as did the ever dangerous Tommy Bowe, and Ulster kept their width and depth and ran in straight lines to stretch the at times thinish red line. One could question Munster’s game management in opting for a short, contestable restart after Jackson had belatedly opened Ulster’s account with a penalty, but after Rory Best reclaimed Paul O’Connell’s tap down, Ulster went through the phases for Henderson (responsible for four of Ulster’s 10 offloads, to one by Munster) took out two men to release Tommy Bowe for a gallop and finish inside Felix Jones.

Similarly, Munster opportunistically worked a try for Earls to finish neatly after good work by the maul and long passes by Ian Keatley and Jones. Ulster were then in overtime again when Stewart McCloskey and Payne ran hard off a maul before Jackson maintained his rich run of try-scoring passes with a flat, skip ball to put Paul Marshall over in the corner. He tagged on the conversion for a five-from-five haul.

Jackson described the conversion as “definitely one of the most nerve-wracking” in his career. He was “very happy with my place-kicking, but still a bit to do on kicking out of hand. They covered the backfield well, and the game was so open at times it was just worrying about our kick-chase and having numbers on our feet. It’s something to work on.

Second Captains

Frustrating “It was frustrating though.

We probably left three tries behind us in the first half. In the last month or so they have been working out for us. It was just an over-run from Tommy [Bowe], not enough air on the ball from me and a drop from Cavey as well. Those seem to have been coming off for us in the last few games. The positive is that we’re getting into those positions, but it’s frustrating not finishing them.”

In becoming the only away team to avoid defeat here in the league this season, Munster showed why they have the best away record in the league. They kicked more, obtaining a 50 per cent share of possession and territory thanks to their customary solid foundations at set-piece and maul time – which not many visiting sides do here.

They covered the back field well, scrambled when they had to, maximised their opportunities and kept their discipline in only conceding five penalties as against Ulster’s 10.

“It’s a very good result,” maintained Anthony Foley. “Munster versus Ulster up here, historically, we don’t often get a result. Unfortunately, the circumstances of the result are probably what hit you most. We were seven points up with time up and we’d like to think we can make them, force them to do one more thing. We didn’t unfortunately and fair play to Paddy Jackson for slotting it, a good try out of Paul Marshall, well worked try and it leaves us disappointed.”

With a three-way tie at the top of the table on 70 points and one point covering the semi-finalists after 21 matches, Foley said: “No one’s run away with it. Every team has won games and lost games and fought for draws like Ulster did today – similarly we did that over in Scarlets. At the death we fought back as well and everyone was fighting tooth and nail throughout the year to get results to top the table.”

Dangerous presumption

Even a five-pointer at home to the Dragons could prove insufficient to earn a home semi-final, but that would be a dangerous presumption, bearing in mind how the Dragons derailed Edinburgh’s tip six hopes on Friday night.

“We know what a good side Dragons are,” said Foley. “They’ve beaten Ulster over in Rodney Parade, beaten Leinster home and away, they were in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup. They’re a very good side. They’re a very young side.

“So we’ll take nothing for granted in Cork next weekend and we’ll make sure we’re fully set for that game.”

Scoring sequence: 5 mins Keatley pen 0-3; 32 mins Keatley pen 0-6; 37 mins Keatley pen 0-9; 40 mins Jackson pen 3-9; 40 (+1) mins Bowe try, Jackson con 10-9; (half-time 10-9); 45 mins Jackson 13-9; 55 mins Keatley pen 13-12; 61 mins Keatley pen 13-15; 69 mins Keatley pen 13-18; 71 mins Jackson pen 16-18; 76 mins Earls try 16-23; 80 +1 mins Marshall try, Jackson con 23-23.

ULSTER: L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, P Nelson; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), W Herbst, D Tuohy, F van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson. Replacements: R Diack for Wilson (30 mins), C Ross for Herbst (52 mins), S McCloskey for Cave (56 mins), A Warwick for Black (62 mins), P Marshall for Nelson (64 mins). Red card: Henderson (74 mins).

MUNSTER: F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, E Guiñazú, S Archer, D Ryan, P O’Connell, P O’Mahony (capt), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: J O’Donoghue for O’Donnell (4 mins), R O’Mahony for Zebo (27 mins), J Ryan for Kilcoyne (half-time), BJ Botha for Archer (49 mins).

Referee: N Owens (WRU).

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