Ulster’s stunning second-half show breathes life into season
Munster were 17-0 up at the break but the sending off of Sam Arnold proves key
Rob Lyttle scores Ulster’s fourth try during the Guinness Pro 14 game against Munster at Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Brian Little/Inpho
Ulster 24 Munster 17
Few saw this one coming with the sound of knives sharpening over Les Kiss’s future almost being audible at half-time, when Munster led 17-0 before the plot-line weaved in an entirely new direction.
Somehow, Ulster managed to turn the tables on their southern rivals in a dramatic second-half comeback to start 2018 with a hugely valuable bonus-point victory.
After the shambles of Connacht and a dire opening 40 minutes, which only seemed to pile the pressure on an embattled Kiss, the northern province – who needed this more – rescued the situation in the face of Munster failing to keep a full complement on the park.
Their cause was massively aided by Munster having lock Fineen Wycherley sin-binned in the 54th minute and then three minutes later former Ulster player Sam Arnold was sent off by Sean Gallagher for a high hit on Christian Leali’ifano leaving Johann van Graan’s side down to 13 men.
As a means of inviting Ulster back into a contest that looked to be well beyond them, it was an unforeseen opportunity which the hosts gratefully accepted, though Cave had already begun the comeback by dotting down prior to the red card.
From there, Munster – back up to 14 men from the 65th minute – just couldn’t regain enough composure or authority and the momentum was all with the hosts, leaving Munster to fall to a second successive defeat and a losing bonus point.
JJ Hanrahan was wide with a second minute penalty from long range but after Ulster had tried to fire a few shots, a combination of Munster’s pack and the home side’s ill- discipline put the visitors in position to score.
And though Alex Wootton was bundled into touch at the corner by Stuart McCloskey, referee Gallagher called it all back for a penalty which Munster put into the corner.
Jack O’Donoghue’s take saw the red shirts surge to the line and Scannell got the opening score.
Hanrahan missed the extras but Munster were out of the blocks and looking comfortable enough with a clearly superior set-piece punishing Ulster at every opportunity.
It was no surprise that their second try came the same way. Penalty to the corner and then another Scannell touchdown after 24 minutes which Hanrahan again couldn’t add to.
Ulster, who had earlier seen John Cooney break free only for his pass to go to a red shirt, then won a rare penalty which Leali’ifano superbly put right into the corner only for Greg Jones to lose the lineout to Darren O’Shea.
There was no need for a conversion in the 34th minute when Gallagher awarded Munster a penalty try after Duncan Williams’s probing kick saw Charles Piutau swallowed up behind his own line after trying to run it out.
A series of five-metre scrums ensued with Munster getting their reward the third time of asking.
The way the half ended was emblematic of Ulster’s malaise as Leali’ifano put a penalty to the corner only for O’Donoghue to sack the maul by dumping Rob Herring into touch.
Ulster came out with all guns firing but two penalties near the Munster line ended up with them opting for scrums which suggested they had no faith in their lineout.
They did, though, eventually breach the red line when Cooney saw a gap and raced through to score, only for the TMO to be consulted and rule the score out for what appeared to be an illegal clear-out at the breakdown.
Munster were then reduced to 14 men when replacement lock Wycherley was yellow-carded in the 55th minute.
And then that became 13 men when Arnold was red-carded for a hit on Leali’ifano in the lead-up to Cave’s 57th-minute score which Cooney converted.
Ulster struck again on 61 minutes when Cave’s kick through was collected by Gilroy to dot down to cut Munster’s lead to 17-12 with Cooney missing the extras.
And then with six minutes remaining – and Munster now with 14 again – Leali’ifano’s floated pass put Gilroy in at the corner to tie the scores.
Cooney struck a marvellous conversion and Ulster led for the first time 19-17.
Lyttle then got the bonus point in the last minute with Cooney missing the conversion.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 14 mins Scannell try 0-5, 24 mins Scannell try 0-10, 34 mins pen try 0-17, (half-time 0-17); 57mins Cave try 5-17, Cooney con 7-17, 61 mins Gilroy try 10-17, 74 mins Gilroy try 17-17, Cooney con 19-17, 79 mins Lyttle try 24-17.
ULSTER: C Piutau; C Gilroy, D Cave, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; C Leali’ifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring (capt), R Ah You; A O’Connor, K Treadwell; G Jones, N Timoney, J Deysel.
Replacements: C Black for McCall and W Herbst for Ah You (both half-time), M Rea for Deysel (45 mins), R Diack for Treadwell (75 mins). Unused: A McBurney, P Marshall , J McPhillips, A Trimble.
MUNSTER: S Zebo; C Nash, K Earls, S Arnold, A Wootton; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; D O’Shea, B Holland (capt); T O’Donnell, C Cloete, J O’Donoghue.
Replacements: F Wycherley for Holland (23 mins); S Fitzgerald for Nash (half-time), S Archer for Ryan (50 mins), K O’Byrne for Scannell (52 mins), R Loughman for Cronin (60 mins), R Copeland for O’Donnell (63 mins), B Johnston for Zebo (74 mins). Not used: J Hart.
Yellow card: Wycherley 55 mins. Red card: S Arnold (57mins).
Referee: S Gallagher (IRFU).