Ian Keatley silences doubters to inspire dogged Munster to victory over Ulster
Ulster 7 Munster 9
Munster’s wretched run of defeats is over and the relief at Ravenhill was palpable when the final whistle went on a taut, error-strewn Guinness Pro12 encounter.
Anthoney Foley’s men now go to Paris for their crunch Champions Cup clash with French champions Stade Francais boosted by a gritty away performance from an understrength team who made life difficult for themselves at times and still came out on the right side of the result.
For Les Kiss and Ulster, the new year begins with regrets ahead of their re-fixed game against Oyonnax next week. They were the better team for much of this encounter, but failed to make their dominance pay. Paddy Jackson had two kicks to win it, but both dropped short and it was the much-maligned Ian Keatley who basked in his match-winning efforts.
Munster were already down numbers, but lost Andrew Conway and Dave Foley who failed late fitness tests, meaning a re-shuffled backline saw Lucas Amorosino switch to full-back and Gerhard van den Heever come on to the wing. Up front, Billy Holland came into the second-row.
With the 24-hour Ireland camp beginning tomorrow, there was plenty for Joe Schmidt to mull over. Stuart McCloskey was outstanding, while Jackson was excellent for most of the game before his poor end-game.
Yet it was the men in red who left with the points and the fillip. Mike Sherry was a key figure in their defensive effort, while CJ Stander was relentless and Rory Scannell had his moments. As has been the case all season, Francis Saili was a constant bundle of energy.
They began with a long spell in opposition territory, with Rory Scannell prominent in the opening stages before Keatley put his side in front with a ninth minute penalty after Nick Williams had killed the ball on the deck.
That, at least, allowed Ulster kick-off and gain a foot-hold in their visitors’ half and they showed some of what they have been working on under Kiss with a beautiful set-move that saw McCloskey free Ruan Pienaar, before Paddy Jackson sent a flat pass wide to Rory Scholes whose kick forced Tomás O’Leary concede a 5m lineout.
Nothing would come of it, but the field position remained in the home side’s favour for most of the rest of the half although they needed an excellent last-ditch tackle from Andrew Trimble on his 200th cap to deny Scannell who pounced on a loose Williams pass and raced for the line.
Most of the action was happening at the other end, however, with Luke Marshall going close off a brilliant Williams off-load, only to be denied by the combined efforts of Keatley, Robin Copeland and Ronan O’Mahony.
The Ireland centre is in fine form and was enjoying himself, turning the Munster defence with a neat chip that would ultimately lead to his side’s first try as Lewis Stevenson stole the throw at the front and, after several phases and some big involvements from McCloskey and Jackson, the pressure eventually told as Ruan Pienaar drew Saili and put Louis Ludik over the line.
Jackson converted as Munster fumed as replays showed a Chris Henry knock-on and a potential offside at a ruck in the build-up to the try.
They had to move on quickly, Marshall stripped Mark Chisholm which allowed McCloskey race into the Munster half and chip in behind to keep the pressure on the visitors who survived and might have gone in in front had they made better of their final visit to the Ulster ’22 of the half when CJ Stander was held up in a choke tackle by Rory Best, McCloskey and Kyle McCall.
Ulster had been the better team and carried that momentum into the second-half, but they were let down by their own inaccuracy at crucial times with uncharacteristic errors letting Munster off the hook.
The Reds were growing in confidence and Keatley dropped a goal to narrow the gap to a single point after Niall Scannell had won his first scrum since coming on against the head.
The out-half then nudged his side in front from the tee after Saili had forced Ludik into holding on and Ricky Lutton came in from the side at the subsequent maul.
Jackson missed a chance to restore his side’s lead with a tough kick after Dave Kilcoyne collapsed a 5m scrum created by a Lucas Amorosino knock-on.
He was to get one last chance after Munster tried to close the game out with one-out carries far too early. Eventually, Duncan Williams was penalised for holding on; allowing the Ireland out-half a chance to find touch. He was short, but Amorosino knocked-on and Gerhard van den Heever played the ball in front of him.
This time, Jackson’s attempt at a winner was even shorter. There was still time to engineer a drop-goal, but Ulster were guilty of over-playing and eventually McCloskey was held up in the tackle allowing Gary Conway sound the final whistle.
You could feel the relief from the men in red in the stand. The rot had been stopped.
ULSTER –L Ludik; A Trimble, L Marshall (S Arnoldm 55), S McCloskey, R Scholes; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 72); K McCall (C Black 65), R Best (capt), W Herbst (R Lutton 36); L Stevenson (A O’Connor 53), F van der Merwe; R Diack (R Wilson 53), C Henry, N Williams (R Herring 72).
MUNSTER – L Amorosino; G van den Heever, F Saili, R Scannell (D Hurley 58), R O'Mahony; I Keatley, T O'Leary (D Williams 58); D Kilcoyne, M Sherry (N Scannell 57), BJ Botha (J Ryan 72); D Foley, M Chisholm; J O'Donoghue, T O'Donnell (R Copeland 57), CJ Stander(capt) (R Copeland 17 - 28).
Referee: G Conway (IRFU)