Henderson's red mist hits Ulster's hopes of glory
ULSTER 23 MUNSTER 23
Published 11/05/2015 | 02:30
There is no doubting that the provincial pecking order has shifted over the course of 2014/15, the final question is who are the top dogs - Ulster or Munster?
Saturday's epic battle couldn't separate them and the hope is that next week's final round of fixtures throws up a rematch because the quality of the game at Kingspan Stadium must have warmed Joe Schmidt right up after the numbing effect of watching Leinster the night before.
Whether one of the main stars of the show will be able to take a further part is now in the hands of the Guinness Pro12 disciplinary officials, with Ulster set to contest the red card that was issued to the barnstorming Iain Henderson with eight minutes remaining.
Nigel Owens took his time reviewing the big 23-year-old's ruck clearout on Ronan O'Mahony before concluding he had led with the head. It was incredibly harsh and lacked empathy with a game in which decisions around the breakdown are becoming increasingly arbitrary.
Unsurprisingly, the rival coaches had differing views on the decision, with Anthony Foley defending the referee and Neil Doak gritting his teeth and saying as much as he could without landing himself in trouble.
"The rules are clear," Foley said. "Not many people are bound any more when they enter the ruck, but you're meant to be bound and arriving hitting with your shoulder.
"Whether it's intentional or not... I'm sure there's a committee that will sit down and look at all the angles. I don't think Henderson's a dirty player so maybe it's an unfortunate circumstance but when heads collide or bodies go under bodies under a high ball there's definitely repercussions around that."
Doak disagreed, saying: "From the replay it looked as if Iain came in pretty low to clean out the ruck. We'll just have to wait and see what the procedure is.
"I don't think there was any malice. It was a timing issue. The referee felt it was dangerous play but I don't think it was. If he gets banned or cited we will definitely appeal."
The red card - Ulster's third of the season - afforded Munster the chance to ram their advantage home with Keith Earls scoring a fine try after their dominant pack had marched Ulster back, but Ian Keatley missed the conversion - his first wide of the day - and that gave the home side hope.
Led by the impressive Stuart McCloskey, they worked their way into a good field position and replacement Paul Marshall got them within two points with a try. It came down to Paddy Jackson from the touchline and the young fly-half capped a fine display with the game's defining moment and earned a draw that leaves the Pro12 table finely balanced going into the last day.
When Foley gathers his players to review this one, his focus is likely to be on the last two minutes of each half. Had this game consisted of two 38 minute halves, Munster would have won 23-6, but their late lapses cost them dear.
"The circumstances of the result are probably what hit you most," he conceded. "We were seven points up with time up and we'd like to think we can force them to do one more thing. We didn't unfortunately and fair play to Paddy Jackson for slotting it, a good try out of Paul Marshall, a well worked try and it leaves us disappointed.
"In hindsight you'd like to think a few things differently but I think our performance to get ourselves into that position was very good. Our set-piece was very good and the way the boys managed the kick-game up here was very good. We played very little rugby in our own half and didn't feel we were under a lot of pressure in our own half during the whole 80 minutes.
"Everything we did should have led to a win but it didn't and a lot of credit has to go to Ulster."
It was an enthralling battle between two in-form sides, with Ireland head-to-heads all over the field.
Henderson was magnificent, far more prominent than his opposite number Peter O'Mahony who put in a solid, hard-working shift himself. Jackson was the game's outstanding performer and must now be a shoo-in for the World Cup squad, while Earls was Munster's best back and Donnacha Ryan showed well.
It was a real clash of styles, with Ulster looking to go wide at every opportunity - testing Munster's defence in a variety of ways but ultimately lacking the accuracy to deliver the scores. That allowed the visiting side hang in there and build a 9-0 lead through the boot of Keatley and as half-time approached it appeared to have earned them an unlikely cushion.
That was until a couple of Henderson power-plays shifted the balance, with the blindside winning a scrum off kick-off ball before the pack earned a penalty for Jackson to get them off the mark.
Despite the clock ticking past 40 minutes, Keatley went short with the kick-off and Rory Best brilliantly read Paul O'Connell's tap-down and, sensing the opportunity, Jackson moved the ball right to Henderson who took O'Mahony and CJ Stander's tackle before brilliantly off-loading to Tommy Bowe who cut inside Conor Murray and Felix Jones to score.
It was a great try and had the Belfast crowd in raptures at the break, but despite Jackson adding to the lead it was Munster who bossed the second-half thanks to BJ Botha's impact at the scrum and a clever, cup-rugby-style game-plan that had them in the lead going into the dramatic final minutes.
While it didn't come off, it provided a template that they can dust off in the play-offs - be it home or away.
"It's about building on who you have in front of you and making sure you get a plan in place so you can get your result," Foley concluded.
"A lot of us have been brought up on cup rugby so it's about building through set-piece and it's about building pressure on the opposition because as you could see, anything can happen on a given day."
Foley is now sweating on the fitness of Tommy O'Donnell and Simon Zebo for next week's game against the Dragons and the semi-final in a fortnight's time. The flanker's hamstring is being assessed after he pulled up in the opening minutes, while the Ireland winger has an ongoing back problem.
Ulster have concerns over Wiehahn Herbst (toe) and Roger Wilson for their final game away to Glasgow, the tie of the round that will have a big impact on the make-up of the play-offs.
Whether they'll have Henderson on board remains in question. On current form, the league would be all-the-poorer if he's suspended.
ULSTER - L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave (S McCloskey 56), P Nelson (P Marshall 64); P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black (A Warwick 62), R Best (capt), W Herbst (B Ross 51), D Tuohy, F van der Merwe, I Henderson (rc 74), C Henry, R Wilson (R Diack 30).
MUNSTER - F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo (R O'Mahony 27); I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Ryan ht), E Giunazu, S Archer (BJ Botha ht), D Ryan, P O'Connell, P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell (J O'Donoghue 4), CJ Stander.
Ref - N Owens (Wales)