Munster edge out Ulster in Thomond thriller to close in on semi-final home draw
Munster 22 Ulster 20
The odds of Thomond Park hosting a Guinness PRO12 semi-final shortened considerably on the back of this Munster win over Ulster, but events in Wales where Ospreys lost heavily to Cardiff Blues mean Ulster could yet return in a few weeks time.
Billed as win-or-bust for Les Kiss’s side, they ended up closing the gap on the Swansea based region whom they visit in two weeks time to a point courtesy of their losing bonus point.
It might have been more, but Paddy Jackson's late drop-goal attempt sailed wide.
Munster take their winning form into next Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens.
They got the job done here, but they’ll need to be a lot better to defeat the holders at the Aviva Stadium.
Tyler Bleyendaal’s conversion of Dave O’Callaghan’s try proved the difference after a hard-fought, if error-strewn, game.
There was intrigue before kick-off as Duncan Williams was withdrawn from the match-day squad with Munster citing a groin injury, with Ulster loanee Angus Lloyd coming in to start against his parent club.
Tyler Bleyendaal was another late withdrawal, with Ian Keatley coming in at No 10. Bleyendaal, who had been following the return to play protocols after a concussion last weekend, was ill this morning but was deemed fit enough to take a place on the bench and played for most of the second-half.
Not so Williams, however, and his inclusion could suggest that Conor Murray’s recovery is not progressing as well as it might ahead of next Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens.
At least CJ Stander gave the Thomond Park faithful some cheer, declaring himself hopeful of making it for the Aviva Stadium clash in a pre-match interview.
They will be sweating on injuries yet again this week, however, as Rory Scannell was forced off during the second-half and Darren Sweetnam went off with a head injury after trying to tackle Charles Piutau from the kick-off.
The visitors turned down an early chance for a shot at goal after Wiehahn Herbst turned over the ball in his own ’22 and after chipping ahead Charles Pituau forced a penalty with a poach on Ian Keatley.
Ulster showed their intent from the lineout, with Rory Best hitting Kieran Treadwell at the front and then joining the maul as it powered over for him to touch down.
Paddy Jackson converted, but within minutes Munster were off the mark themselves and it was the Ulster man wearing red, Lloyd, who did the damage.
After Simon Zebo caught a Ruan Pienaar box-kick, Niall Scannell did well to spot an overlap and Peter O’Mahony ghosted past Piutau and into space. He fed Keith Earls, who drew a defender and returned the ball to his captain and he found Lloyd on the wing and the scrum-half did well to force his way over.
Ian Keatley levelled with a tough conversion but Jackson nudged his team back in from right in front after Francis Saili rushed up too early during a multi-phase Ulster attack.
Lloyd got away with one when he was charged down by Ruan Pienaar and the hosts were on the back-foot again when they managed to turn over a Rory Best throw, but Jackson nipped in and stole the ball back and brilliantly ghosted his way into the opposition half. Billy Holland went high on Jacob Stockdale, but the out-half couldn’t take advantage and sent his penalty wide.
Ulster clearly had the upper hand, however, and although Piutau dropped the restart they turned Munster over in the scrum.
A Piutau off-load almost led to a score but for the hand of Andrew Conway who knocked Luke Marshall’s try-scoring pass to Pienaar on. Marius Mitrea deemed it deliberate, which was harsh, but then strangely kept his card in his pocket.
Ulster went to touch and their first maul came down illegally, but the second attempt from 5m out was dealt with by Munster who earned a scrum when the ball failed to come back after Pienaar went for the line.
After soaking up all of that pressure, Munster finally got a foot-hold in Ulster territory as Lloyd chipped in behind and Peter O’Mahony managed to put enough pressure to force a knock-on but two attacks came to nothing as first Jackson and then Iain Henderson forced errors before the third home attack was halted by some brilliant Andrew Trimble defending.
The Munster scrum took over, however, handing Keatley a chance to level by obliterating Ulster on their own ball.
They almost got themselves in front before half-time too as Stuart Olding knocked on under little pressure and, from the scrum, Munster worked the ball wide to Andrew Conway who was stopped just short by Luke Marshall. Dave Kilcoyne went for the line, but was held up and after a long series of scrums and re-sets Tommy O’Donnell knocked on and the visitors made it into the dressing-rooms with the scores level.
At half-time, Les Kiss switched Piutau to full-back and moved Jacob Stockdale on to the wing and the youngster might have had a try when he capitalised on a loose ball by kicking ahead and out-paced the defenders to the ball, but couldn’t connect a second time as he headed for the line.
He was then denied a score by the television match official when he ran on to a forward pass from Marshall to touch down.
A brilliant Rory Best turnover allowed Marshall to exert some pressure with an excellent kick to the corner and while Rory Scannell exited well, Ulster attacked from the lineout sending Stuart McCloskey up the middle on his first touch, before Andrew Trimble went through a big gap on the reverse angle.
He might have scored, but was hauled down close to the line and O’Mahony took one for the team by conceding a penalty that Jackson kicked to edge his side in front.
The error count was mounting on both sides and with even Ruan Pienaar making a mistake when he kicked the ball dead.
Francis Saili punished him dearly, stepping inside Trimble’s tackle and evading Jackson’s tackle before sending Keith Earls over for the try.
Bleyendaal pushed the conversion right and his side were back under pressure when Abrie Griesel was charged down and Simon Zebo’s poor clearance invited Ulster to attack. They patiently worked it through the phases and Jackson punished Saili for rushing up by slipping Marshall in for the try.
Jackson converted to make it a five-point game and although they were forced to replace Scannell with hooker Rhys Marshall, Munster bullied their way back into the lead through their lineout maul as Dave O’Callaghan forced his way over and Bleyendaal added the extras to nudge his side in front.
With a make-shift backline, their challenge was to see it out and Ulster helped their cause by committing too many errors in good positions.
They got one last chance when they turned over a Munster scrum, but Jackson sent his drop-goal attempt wide. He might have waited a few more phases to get set, but the chance came when it did and he couldn’t manage the connection he needed.
MUNSTER - S Zebo; D Sweetnam (A Conway 1 HIA), F Saili, R Scannell (R Marshall 67), K Earls; I Keatley (T Bleyendaal 44), A Lloyd (A Griesel 51); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 56), N Scannell, J Ryan; D Ryan (D O’Callaghan 61), B Holland; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, J O'Donoghue (J Deysel 45).
ULSTER - J Stockdale; A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S Olding (S McCloskey 51), C Piutau (C Gilory 61); P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick (C Black 63), R Best (R Herring 51 HIA), W Herbst (R Ah You 73); K Treadwell, A O'Connor; I Henderson, C Henry (C Ross 28) (R Diack 70), S Reidy.
Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)