Ulster’s draw with Munster caps a year of missed chances

Ulster fell at the last lineout, but this was just the final blow in a doomed campaign

Ulster captain Rory Best scores a try against Munster at Thomond Park, Limerick. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Munster 24 Ulster 24

Under the stand in Thomond Park, Rory Best kicked off his boots and avoided delving too deeply into Ulster’s season. The last lineout throw in their failed bid to make the play-offs next weekend boiled down their entire campaign.

A deep kick to touch for an attacking platform in the dying seconds. Just one try needed for a win and bonus point. An overthrow and the outstanding Gerbrandt Grobler again coming away with the lineout ball to end the game was crushing.

It was also a microcosm of Ulster’s year of failed opportunity, inconsistency, and a hesitant team short on players in key positions – although, at outhalf, Johnny McPhillips was not bad at all.

In the end Ulster just aren’t where they should be. A busted flush, all of it was evident in Thomond Park with three tries in the first half and no points in the second, when all they needed in real time was one more try for a bonus point and the chance to step into the play-off zone.


Ulster’s moment of pulling a white rabbit out of the hat was announcing they had found a coach for next season. Although the coach remained nameless, the news nonetheless changed the narrative of the day and effectively deflected discussion away from a season of turmoil, where good weeks were followed by bad and, at the end, bad weeks followed by worse.

“We were a team who weren’t enjoying our rugby,” explained Best.

Fighting language

The league play-offs gone, Ulster now hope to meet Ospreys in a shootout for a place in the Champions Cup next season. Best, still talking fighting language, knows if it comes to it, the first-half Ulster that led 14-24 can beat Ospreys, the second-half Ulster that could not exit their half will lose.

“We’re disappointed we missed the line-out,” said the Ulster captain of the final throw. “But you can’t look at that one moment and say that cost us a quarter-final or cost us the match. There’s been a lot of stuff that’s gone on that put us in that position.”

Momentum and territory defined Ulster’s first half against a shadow Munster side. Coach Johann van Graan made 14 changes to the team that lost to Toulon in the Champions Cup semi-final. To that end Ulster took to their task brightly and within five minutes Stuart McCloskey’s try had negated Duncan Williams’s early sting after two minutes’ play.

While Ulster were the more creative, the threat was minimal. They then went to driving mauls and scrums as Grobler was in the process of destroying the Ulster lineout. That was more effective and when Munster number 8 Robin Copeland infringed to stop an Ulster roll towards their line, referee Ben Whitehouse showed the yellow card.

It was during Copeland’s time in the bin that Ulster scored two more tries, both of them a rolling pack muscling forwards and Best dotting, the second with Alan O’Connor dragging his captain with him. That brace offset Brian Scott’s touchdown for Munster on 28 minutes.

Massive difference

It was all sweet for Ulster with three tries and needing another in the second half, but Stephen Archer and Jean Kleyn coming in made a massive difference to the Munster set-piece and, with Darren Sweetnam’s lazy runs in space, Ulster lost control of the tempo and momentum. James Cronin also put in a shift that will usefully catch the eye of van Graan when it comes to selection this week.

A Copeland try on 50 minutes with a flawless JJ Hanrahan converting and then kicking a penalty to level the game sealed Ulster’s fate, the failed last lineout underscoring the misery.

Van Graan was no more pleased than Best with the draw, believing Munster could have won the match, but now switches his attention to Edinburgh next weekend in their Thomond Park quarter-final.

“They have got a very hard edge about them. It was a very tightly contest affair in Edinburgh a few weeks ago,” said van Graan.

Edinburgh beat Glasgow 24-19 in Murrayfield in a later match, so a bonus point win for Ulster would not have been enough to make the play-offs.

“Richard Cockerill I have got a lot of respect for,” added the Munster coach. “I have met him a few times previously. He’s done a lot of good things at Edinburgh and they have got a lot of belief. The way they put the Scarlets away a few weeks ago they showed it’s not only about their set-piece, about their good defence and their kicking game, they can also attack as well.”

Munster face Edinburgh on May 5th, with Scarlets taking on Cheetahs in Parc y Scarlets in the other quarter-final on the same day.

Scoring sequence: 2 mins D Williams try, JJ Hanrahan con 7-0; 5 mins S McCloskey try, J Mc Phillips con 7-7; 15 mins Mc Phillips pen 7-10; 28 mins B Scott try, JJ Hanrahan con 14-10; 33 mins R Best try, McPhillips con 14-17; 40 mins Best try, McPhillips con 14-24; 50 mins R Copeland try, Hanrahan con 21-24; 68 mins Hanrahan pen 24-24.

MUNSTER: S Fitzgerald; C Nash, S Arnold, D Goggin, D Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin, M Sherry (C), B Scott; G Grobler, D O'Shea; D O'Callaghan, C Oliver, R Copeland. Replacements: S Archer for Scott 40 mins; P Marshall for Shanahan 45 mins; J Kleyn for O'Shea, J O'Donoghue for Oliver 47 mins; R Marshall for Sherry, J Hart for Williams 56 mins.

ULSTER: L Ludik; C Gilroy, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, D Shanahan; C Black, R Best (captain), R Kane, A O'Connor, I Henderson, C Ross, S Reidy, N Timoney. Replacements: K Treadwell for Henderson 22 mins; A Curtis for McCloskey 30 mins; P Marshall for Shanahan 45 mins; A Warwick for Black 55 mins;  T O'Toole for Kane 64 mins; T Bowe for Gilroy, R Herring for Best 69 mins; C Henry for Timoney 72 mins.

Referee: B Whitehouse (WRU)

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times