Foreign legion drive Ulster to derby triumph
A CLEAR night in Belfast but the picture in relation to the foreign-versus-native debate in Irish rugby is as fuzzy as ever.
Having taken the decision to split his squad for this week's four-day turnaround, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin, after running his Ravens side in the defeat to Leinster on Monday, was vindicated by last night's bonus-point win over an understrength Munster -- and it was a victory that was based squarely on the experience and nous of his foreign contingent.
John Afoa was immense at tight-head prop: the All Black stormed over for a first-half try and was centrally involved in two second-half touchdowns stemming directly from the destruction of the Munster scrum.
Ruan Pienaar scored one of those tries and produced some exquisite touches at scrum-half, while skipper Johann Muller was an authoritative presence in the second-row.
Even Stefan Terblanche got in on the act on his first start since his controversial move to the province as a medical joker.
The 36-year-old Springbok looked well short of the pace of his heyday but still managed to squeeze over for Ulster's first try, while his back-row counterpart Pedrie Wannenburg had his moments also.
From the Irish-qualified contingent, it was a good night for Craig Gilroy and Adam D'Arcy in the Ulster back three while Ian Humphreys, despite some uncharacteristic misses off the tee, made his case for the third Irish out-half slot with a personal haul of 15 points.
Munster, while they battled hard throughout, typified by James Coughlan at No 8, were simply too callow without so many frontline players, but can take heart from a lively showing by young Luke O'Dea and Johne Murphy on the wings, while the likes of Dave O'Callaghan, Ian Nagle and Stephen Archer will benefit from the exposure.
But, the level of errors and indecision at critical junctures spoke of a degree of uncertainty from Munster players who simply did not have the type of road-miles that Ulster's overseas brigade have amassed over many years.
However, it was Munster who made the better start, quelling the rollicking full-house holiday atmosphere by dominating possession from the kick-off, reclaiming two garryowens and trying to work the phases.
But after they strayed offside chasing an Ian Keatley kick, it was Humphreys who opened the scoring for 3-0 after eight minutes.
Munster's second scrum penalty saw them gain position in the Ulster half on 13 minutes and, for the first time, there was a bit of zip in the contest as, marshalled by Duncan Williams, Coughlan and the forwards tore onto the ball.
A superb cross-field kick by Keatley was well fielded and grounded by O'Dea, with Keatley converting for 3-7.
That prompted a home response, forged in South Africa, as Wannenburg burst through and fed Pienaar and when Munster gave away the penalty 10 yards out, Humphreys made it a one-point game.
Denis Hurley spilled possession after a heavy tackle by Afoa and when a long Humphreys pass put Darren Cave into space, he put Terblanche away, the winger just about getting over in the corner.
Humphreys converted for 13-7 only for Keatley to respond with a penalty that went in off the post for 13-10 on the half-hour.
Keatley should have tied it up three minutes later after another scrum penalty but missed from in front of the posts and then Terblanche should have had his second try but didn't back himself and it was left to Afoa to barge his way over the line.
Humphreys converted again and Ulster went in for the break with a 10-point cushion.
Munster's first-half scrum advantage may have prompted the decision to opt for the set-piece when awarded a free-kick on the resumption only for Afoa to wreak havoc and disrupt possession, allowing Humphreys to hack on for the try.
Amazingly, he missed the routine convert but at 25-10, it was looking grim for the visitors.
They repeated the dose on 55 minutes, another mangled Munster scrum popping the ball up obligingly for Pienaar, who sprinted over for from 40 metres out.
Humphreys missed his third kick in a row (hitting the post with a penalty attempt) just before but the home side had their bonus-point as the benches were cleared.
To their credit, Munster kept battling but Pienaar, by this stage moved to out-half, made it 33-10.
A dodgy pass from Pienaar was missed by substitute Peter Nelson and Murphy swooped for a converted score to take some of the Munster pain off the scoreboard.
So, what did we learn? There is no doubt that Ulster's overseas contingent were crucial to claiming five points in a match that they had to win to stay in contention in the Pro12 League, but you wonder whether this level of over-dependence on non-Irish eligible players is necessarily a good thing.
Ulster will feel justified by this result but the solution for Irish rugby lies somewhere between using foreign influence as a springboard to success and giving indigenous talent a fair crack of the whip.
Which, to be fair to the IRFU, and their flaws-and-all player succession policy, is what they are trying to achieve.
ULSTER -- A D'Arcy (P Nelson 72); C Gilroy, D Cave (C Farrell 63), I Whitten, S Terblanche; I Humphreys (P Marshall 67) , R Pienaar; P McAllister (C Black 63), A Kyriacou (N Brady 57), J Afoa (A Macklin 72); J Muller (capt), D Tuohy (L Stevenson 63);, C Henry, W Faloon (A Birch 72), P Wannenburg.
MUNSTER -- D Hurley; L O'Dea, T Gleeson (W Chambers 27), L Mafi (S Deasy 63), J Murphy; I Keatley, D Williams (T O'Leary 63); W du Preez (M Horan 69), D Varley (D Fogarty 50), S Archer (J Ryan 72); I Nagle (B Holland 73), M O'Driscoll (capt); Dave O'Callaghan (B Holland 72), T O'Donnell (P Butler 37), J Coughlan.
REF -- A Rolland (Ireland)