Munster profit from Ulster's flaws to hold out for victory
Munster 22 Ulster 20
The endgame said it all about Ulster. Faced with the prospect of hanging onto the ball and taking the game into the red, until either a penalty or a decent drop-goal opportunity arrived, in the end they did neither. Instead they rushed an effort from Paddy Jackson which, if successful, would have won the game, but even before he put boot to ball you felt it was going anywhere bar on target. He had only just got back on his feet from cleaning a ruck.
"On reflection, for me, we could have had a bit more patience," assistant coach Allen Clarke said. "Maybe for us it summed up where we were in the game. We had good chances and we didn't convert."
In the previous few minutes they had, in quick succession, knocked on in midfield, either over-thrown or under-lifted at a lineout on the Munster 22, and then turned over the ball on a carry.
Coming to Thomond Park, Ulster's need was greater, and it extended a bit farther than a losing bonus point. With two games to go - away to Ospreys and home to Leinster - their top-four hopes are not done yet, and were helped by Ospreys losing on Friday night to Cardiff. Mentally, however, they look well removed from a team capable of making the play-offs for the fifth straight season, never mind doing something if they get there.
You look at the names on their team-sheet and wonder how they can be so brittle. Munster were a good deal more assured when it came to getting over the endline; they have Treviso next up which puts them within touching distance of a home draw in the semis.
And fair enough, for they had to hobble through the last 13 minutes with either replacement hooker Rhys Marshall or Peter O'Mahony hidden in their backline - the indirect result of having had to use their first back sub after 10 seconds. It must have been the fastest concussion in history when Darren Sweetnam bounced off the hip of Charles Piutau when chasing the drop-kick to start the game. That was that for him.
While you'd expect him to be fit to face Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final on Saturday, Rory Scannell suffered an ankle injury that Rassie Erasmus conceded was "serious". Erasmus added that it was unlikely that Conor Murray would make it, though CJ Stander's chances look a bit better.
It was an exciting game, though only because of the closeness at the finish, and its implications. For Ulster especially too many of their stars were clouded over: Ruan Pienaar's influence was negligible when it needed to be dominant; and Piutau looked distracted.
In a first half where the both sides were quick to show their appetite for the physical side of it, unfortunately the skills didn't quite match. There was enough ball put down, with pressure either minimal or none at all, to make the video review uncomfortable. And It didn't get any better after the break.
Ten-all at the interval was fair enough as the share of territory and possession had only a few percentage points in it. Though Ulster will regret especially a few minutes mid-way through the half when Jackson miscued badly with a handy enough penalty shot, and soon after the restart Luke Marshall butchered a two on one with a certain try for Pienaar if the pass had been completed.
That it wasn't was judged by referee Marius Mitrea to have been a deliberate block-down by Simon Zebo. That looked harsh enough, so maybe justice was done in Ulster being unable to convert the territory into points despite another penalty in the sequence.
They had got the perfect start with a mauled try for Rory Best - he went off with a HIA - but Angus Lloyd, who did well on his first start after three runs off the bench, levelled it on eight minutes.
The lead bounced around in the second half with Jackson kicking a penalty for 13-10, soon after Jacob Stockdale had a touchdown knocked back correctly by the TMO, but on 62 minutes Keith Earls finished a great try. It was a power-play off a scrum that brought the ball first right and then to the other side where lovely skill by Francis Saili, with a step and pass, put the wing over.
Ulster bounced back again when Marshall timed perfectly his run onto a pass from Jackson to cruise over, on 66 minutes. That advantage lasted all of five minutes until replacement Dave O'Callaghan got over, with Tyler Bleyendaal adding the extras. It shouldn't have been enough, but against this Ulster side it was.
Scorers - Munster: Lloyd, Earls, O'Callaghan try each; Keatley pen, con, Bleyendaal con; Ulster: Best, Marshall try each; Jackson 2 pens, 2 cons.
Munster: S Zebo; D Sweetnam (A Conway HIA 1), F Saili, R Scannell (R Marshall 67), K Earls; I Keatley (T Bleyendaal 44), A Lloyd (A Griesel 50); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 57), N Scannell, J Ryan (S Archer 66), D Ryan (D O'Callaghan 60), B Holland, P O'Mahony (capt), J O'Donoghue (J Deysel 45), T O'Donnell.
Ulster: J Stockdale; A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S Olding (S McCloskey 51), C Piutau (C Gilroy 60); P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick (C Black 63), R Best (R Herring HIA 51), W Herbst (R Ah You 73), K Treadwell, A O'Connor, I Henderson, S Reidy, C Henry (C Ross 28, R Diack 70)
Referee: M Mitrea (Italy)
Sunday Indo Sport