Ulster take advantage of error-strewn Munster
Rob Penney’s side travel to Glasgow for tough semi-final clash
Ulster’s Michael Heaney avoids the tackles of Munster’s Casey Laulala and Felix Jones to score a try during the RaboDirect Pro 12 game Thomond Park. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Munster 17 Ulster 19: Ulster would have taken most of the encouragement and the plaudits from this encounter long before the end, but as it transpired their callow and makeshift selection earned a first win in five attempts at Thomond Park.
Predictably spirited and physical, especially in defence and at the breakdown, where they counter-rucked furiously, Dan Tuohy led them admirably from the front, with Michael Heaney a livewire at scrumhalf. Young James McKinney kicked them to victory, which will do wonders for morale in their camp for Saturday night’s semi-final against Leinster at the RDS.
For their part Munster were often authors of their own downfall, again putting plenty of width on the ball but not taking on Ulster closer in sufficiently and, in a recurring theme, not having enough decoy runners and variety off the ball. They now take on Glasgow next Friday in a damaged state of mind.
News that Glasgow had achieved the quickest bonus point of the season at home to Zebre had scuppered any remote hopes Munster had of obtaining a home semi-final regardless of what they achieved here. Even so, after an unbeaten home campaign until a fortnight ago, this second successive home defeat at their Limerick citadel was not what the doctor ordered.
True to type under much of Rob Penney’s reign, Munster mixed the sometimes sublime with the occasionally ridiculous. The worst of the day’s weather had relented, even if the pill must have been very slippery, and so, also true to type under Penney in what was his Thomond Park farewell – barring two away wins in the semi-finals– Munster sought to put the ball through the hands and play with plenty of width.
The net result was a whacky amalgam of inventive running and handling, along with some crass handling errors. For example, not long after a fine try from deep which constituted much of what Penney has been looking for, they made three of the latter in succession.
Although they had wrapped up the vast majority of their frontliners in cotton wool, the victory still came at a cost for Ulster, whose worsening injury list appeared to be expanded in time for next week’s semi-final away to Leinster when Nick Williams was taken off on the mobile stretcher with a knee medial ligament injury; albeit he gave a thumbs up to team-mates and a sympathetic crowd.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe was not so optimistic after the game, saying that he believes the big New Zealander’s season could be over.
Enjoying the more favourable conditions at the outset, Munster nearly made a breakthrough from inside half-way in the opening couple of minutes, when Casey Laulala broke the Ulster line in the middle with a simple step off his left foot. He linked with the supporting James Coughlan and from the recycle Duncan Williams fed their South African speedster Gerhard van den Heever, but he was denied a try in the corner on the outside by 21-year-old Academy centre Stuart McCloskey, on only his second League start.
Ian Keatley soon opened the scoring when Coughlan, making a barnstorming start, won a turnover penalty which the outhalf nailed, and Laulala was the go-to man in originating a fine try from deep. Using his footwork to make a half-break, Laulala offloaded to Keatley out wide around the Munster 10metre line. Keatley and Williams combined to release James Downey, with Coughlan the final link man as Williams scampered away to score.
Applying big pressure on Ulster’s set-pieces, Munster seemed set fair, but within a minute of the restart had conceded a try that could have been termed soft and questionable, yet also well taken. Keatley’s up-and-under exit strategy into the wind was held up, and when Felix Jones didn’t gather it in, lively Ulster scrumhalf Heaney sniped around an unguarded blindside before exchanging passes with Michael Allen to score. The latter pass looked forward, all the more so when Owens went to the TMO, but nevertheless the Welsh referee awarded the try.
Paul O’Connell lifted one close-in siege after those three aforementioned errors – more wildly inaccurate passes really – but shortly after Williams’s departure, McKinney – also on his second league start – drew the sides level before the break after Van den Heever was ahead of Williams’s box kick.
On the resumption, Damien Varley compounded a knock-on by holding on only for McCloskey to knock on his attempted quick tap. It was becoming that kind of game. McKinney kicked Ulster briefly into the lead but that provoked a response from home crowd and team alike.
Varley won a superb turnover on the deck and the ball was moved wide fro David Kilcoyne to gallop strongly in trademark fashion and put Munster on the front foot. Deft little grubbers in behind are particularly lethal on greasy evenings such as this and from the recycle Keatley’s probing ball in behind was weighted to fall short of the line, eluding two players from each team before Sean Dougall picked up and plunged over. With his last act, Keatley converted.
With his first JJ Hanrahan – as he often does – made a searing break in response to another McKinney penalty, but the spirited Ulster defence withheld both the ensuing maul and close-in drives. The initial raft of frontrow changes didn’t do Munster any favours, McKinney nudging Ulster with a well-judged penalty across the wind after James Cronin had been penalised.
Munster mounted a furious assault, Hanrahan the hub as they finally put together a sequence of phases with a variety of effective running angles and Ulster winger David McIlwaine was fortune to merely concede a scrum when his one-handed knock-on prevented Hanrahan linking with a three man overlap near the line.
Still, it was hard to fathom why Munster opted for a scrum eight minutes from time when Lewis Stevenson killed the ball close to the line a mere 10 metres to the right of the posts. All too predictably, their ambition floundered on a knock-on by O’Connell.
The more desperate Munster tried, the more they had to retrieve missed passes, but having earned an impending scrum inside the 22 the decision was rightly reversed at the behest of a touch judge against Alan Cotter for use of his foot near the head of a prostrate Mike McComish.
Making a third steal on the Ulster throw, Munster engineered a final drop goal opportunity (again, why not take the earlier penalty?) but Hanrahan skewed his last minute attempt wide and fittingly their efforts appeared to have finally disappeared on about their 18th handling error. Recourse to the TMO discovered use of an Ulster hand in the final scrum and with time up Hanrahan’s penalty from the half-way line fell well short.
Scoring sequence – 11 mins: Keatley pen 3-0; 14 mins: Williams try, Keatley con 10-0; 16 mins: Heaney try, McKinney con 10-7; 36 mins: McKinney pen 10-10; (half-time 10-10); 47 mins: McKinney pen 10-13; 48 mins: Dougall try, Keatley con 17-13; 53 mins: McKinney pen 17-16; 64 mins: McKinney pen 17-19.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Gerhard van den Heever, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Damien Varley (capt), John Ryan; Dave Foley, Paul O’Connell; Paddy Butler, Sean Dougall, James Coughlan. Replacements: JJ Hanrahan for Keatley (49 mins), Tommy O’Donnell for Coughlan, Keith Earls for Zebo (both 53 mins), Alan Cotter for Ryan (58 mins), Conor Murray for Williams (58 mins), James Cronin for Kilcoyne (60 mins), Billy Holland for Foley (79 mins). Not used: Quentin MacDonald.
ULSTER: C Gilroy; D McIlwaine, M Allen, S McCloskey, R Scholes; J McKinney, M Heaney; C Black, R Herring, A Warwick; L Stevenson, D Tuohy (capt); M McComish, S Doyle, N Williams. Replacements: C Joyce for Williams (34 mins), N McComb for Tuohy (53 mins), A Macklin for Warwick (58 mins), K McCall for Herring, D Shanahan for Heaney (both 75 mins). Not used: B Ross, D Shanahan, R Andrew, P Nelson.
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU).
Friday May 16th
Glasgow v Munster, Scotstoun, 7.35pm
Saturday May 17th
Leinster v Ulster, RDS, 7.0pm