Ulster 23 Munster 23
Regrets, they’ll both have a few - Munster at letting a seven-point lead slip away after the 80 minute mark, and Ulster at letting slip a host of chances in sacrificing their 100% home record - but of the two the visitors emerged the healthier and the happier.
This hugely entertaining draw, combined with Glasgow’s defeat away to the Ospreys, left Munster third in a three-way tie on 70 points behind the Ospreys and Glasgow thanks to having one win less, with Ulster now a point adrift on 69 and in fourth. Munster host the Dragons next Saturday at 3pm, while Glasgow are at home to Ulster and the Ospreys away to Connacht.
Ulster played most of the rugby, and created significantly more chances, but while they will rue those they could take some heart from a 14-man comeback at the end. Munster were resolute and opportunistic, in showing why they have the best away record in the league.
Helped by Paul O'Connell claiming the kick-off, Munster made the early running if not any penetration, and even the boost of an early Ian Keatley penalty was offset by the loss of Tommy O'Donnell in the early exchanges. Given the significance of this 'trial' in front of Joe Schmidt and co, this cruelly denied the flanker his duel with Chris Henry.
This was also compounded by the 27th minute loss of Simon Zebo, thus denying him his duel with Tommy Bowe. As well as a couple of clear-outs, there had been two strong pieces of defending by Zebo as first he covered a Jackson grubber to deny Jared Payne a try, and then stopped Payne in his tracks with a ball and all tackle which also prevented an offload. Tellingly, Bowe would also go on to maximise Zebo's departure.
Ulster were soon using the full width of the pitch and probing a thin-ish looking red line, and on several occasions were a pass away from breaking clear. A prime example was Jackson working a perfectly executed loop to create an overlap but Bowe couldn’t hold onto Louis Ludik’s pass when he slightly over-ran the ball and had to reach back.
When Ulster again began to penetrate again but an offload went to ground, Keith Earls gathered, kicked ahead into space and outpaced Rory Best but his second toe poke was fractionally over hit and the ball just beat his despairing dive before the end-goal line. It was a hell of an effort though.
Somewhat against the run of play Keatley tagged on two more penalties, as Henry and Iain Henderson - blatantly coming in from the side - are penalised by the immovable Nigel Owens despite the home crowd's loud disapproval.
They were more content, even a tad ironically, when Owens rewarded a big Ulster scrum with a penalty which Jackson nailed to open their account. Then Munster opted for a short, contestable restart rather than protect their 9-3 lead and paid the full price. Although Paul O'Connell chased down Keatley's hanging drop kick, his old Irish sidekick Rory Best manoeuvred himself on the far side of the ball for a very significant steal.
When Ulster again held their width and depth and shape, this time the final pass/offload stuck as Iain Henderson took out two men with a one-handed offload to Tommy Bowe, who galloped on and beast Felix Jones all too easily on the inside, in the process fending off the covering Conor Murray, to score amid a huge din.
Jackson nudged the conversion through the posts and Ulster skipped off to roars of approval. It felt pivotal.
Jackson extended the lead five minutes after the restart before Keatley responded after an exchange of breakdown penalties. Munster had rallied for their first spell of concerted pressure since the opening exchanges, but it was hard work against the fast-up Ulster defence.
When Munster came calling again, it seemed important that the recently introduced Stuart McCloskey orchestrated a choke tackle turnover on Andrew Smyth, but instead the second of two big shoves by the Munster pack to earn a penalty which Keatley landed. The introduction of John Ryan at half-time and especially BJ Botha soon after certainly wrought quite a transformation at scrum time.
Although a set move off a line-out saw Jackson release Bowe on his inside shoulder but his attempted behind-the-back pass inside missed Henry completely. Another chance wasted, and after another exchange of penalties left Ulster trailing 18-16, they worked an overlap for Tommy Bowe to kick ahead and the home side won the recycle, but on recourse to the TMO, Henderson was not only penalised, correctly, for leading with his forearm in clearing out Ronan O’Mahony but, harshly, red-carded.
Munster struck stealthily off the ensuing line-out, long passes by Keatley and Jones releasing Keith Warls. One chance, one try, as the winger (who has always known where the try line is) stepped Payne on the inside to score.
Keatley missed his touchline conversion, Ulster responded with one final throw of the dice, McCloskey and Payne each making inroads before Jackson engineered yet another try scoring pass with a long, flat skip ball to Paul Marshall. Unlike Kealtey, Jackson nailed the conversion to earn the draw, but the ensuing lap of honour still felt slightly anti-climacic.
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 Kealtey 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: Louis Ludik; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Peter Nelson; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Rory Best (capt), Wiehahn Herbst, Dan Tuohy, Franco van der Merwe, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
Replacements - Robbie Diack for Wilson (30 mins),Clive Ross for Herbst (52 mins), Stuart McCloskey for Cave (56 mins),Andrew Warwick for Black (62 mins), Paul Marshall for Nelson (64 mins), Not used - Rob Herring, Bronson Ross, Ian Humphreys,
Red card - Henderson (74 mins).
Munster: Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Andrew Smith, Denis Hurley, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Eusebio Guinazu, Stephen Archer, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony (capt), Tommy O'Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements - Jack O'Donoghue for O'Donnell (4 mins), Ronan O'Mahony for Zebo (27 mins), John Ryan for Kilcoyne (half-time), BJ Botha for Archer (49 mins). Not used - Duncan Casey, Billy Holland, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan,
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)