A new Munster beginning to emerge as Erasmus leaves his imprint
Ulster look to be facing a challenging winter despite the depth of talent at their disposal
Friday night in Belfast had to be something of a comedown for Munster from the high emotions of recent weeks, even if a derby against Ulster is still a long way from the depths of a Sunday lunchtime fixture in Rodney Parade.
The fact that the opposition was Ulster at a full and raucous Kingspan Stadium would have focused the minds wonderfully, however, in acknowledgment of the local pride at stake and also of the 'scalp' that the red jersey represents to all the rival provinces.
Ten of Rassie Erasmus' starters from last week's hammering of Glasgow took the field, with Munster's three likely starters in Chicago next week - CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo - absent, along with last week's man-of-the-match out-half Tyler Bleyendaal (rested) and Keith Earls (suspended).
Les Kiss was able to pick a strong XV, even allowing for the absence of his share of Joe Schmidt's front-liners, for a game they would have targetted as they sought to avoid a fifth successive defeat to their southern rivals, and a third in a row on home turf.
While the match-ups in the forwards looked relatively even, behind the scrum Ulster looked significantly better-equipped. Out-half Paddy Jackson, who could be forgiven in a sense for being a tad cautious with the month that he has ahead of him, was co-ordinating matters in typically assured fashion, with his tactical kicking particularly astute and, even without Chicago-bound Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble, as well as the injured Stuarts, Olding and McCloskey, the home three-quarters looked hungry and confident.
In All Black Charles Piutau at full-back, they unquestionably had the most talented player on the pitch, as he will be on most pitches this season; while he showed glimpses of brilliance on most of his possessions and scored an opportunist opening try off one of Jackson's well-placed kicks, Ulster still have some way to go in blending him in with their patterns and plays.
In addition, despite their obvious abilities, Ulster's propensity to make basic handling errors in attempting to execute the more ambitious elements of their game-plan was in stark contrast to Munster's efficiency in implementing a much simpler strategy.
While the visitors never really sparked as an attacking unit, their characteristically functional, physical and belligerent approach up front - typified by the outstanding Dave Kilcoyne's 19 carries and a highly effective maul, set the tone - despite the concession of a first-half brace of tries of the 'marshmallow' variety through basic defensive lapses, which will be high on Erasmus' agenda for most of next week.
With Ian Keatley drawing a total blank with the placed ball, and a lack of direction at times in attack illustrated by a snap long-range drop-goal attempt in the first half, their centres stepped up to the plate well. The new partnership of Rory Scannell and Jaco Taute showed signs of real promise in attack; the recruitment of the Springbok, even if on an emergency basis, seems a nice piece of business and he appears to have rapidly bought into the Munster ethic. A sustained run over the coming months for this duo outside Bleyendaal will be of particular significance to Erasmus' plans.
Up front at the set-piece, it was an even contest. Peter O'Mahony, in relentless pursuit of minutes on the pitch and with his innate 'dog' and competitiveness, led a strong Munster back-row, probably the team's strongest unit on the night, and it was his energy in this area, along with that of Tommy O'Donnell and, in particular, Jack O'Donoghue, that kept Munster in the game.
O'Donnell must have been very disappointed not to have made Schmidt's squad for Chicago next week and a reaction was to be expected. Although he had a solid enough evening, he was one of those to miss Rob Lyttle for the second try, and was overshadowed by both of his colleagues in terms of carrying. Young O'Donoghue continues to impress and is now a central component of a strong squad of back-rows at Munster's disposal.
There was always likely to be something of a hangover from recent events and the emotional intensity of the Glasgow match would be impossible to maintain, regardless of how much they may have wanted a win in Belfast.
Munster's recovery from an admittedly largely self-inflicted first-half deficit of 14 points was a tribute to their resilience and application; they knuckled down well, putting their defensive lapses behind them, signalled their intent with Scannell's crucial try just before half-time and reappeared after the break clearly intent on making no further concessions.
Holding Ulster scoreless in the second half, while gradually chipping away themselves with Taute's try and Scannell's late drop-goal underlined not only to their mental fortitude but also the coaching influence of Erasmus and his colleagues; the early-season flashes of promise have been built upon impressively and a 'new' Munster is showing signs of emerging.
Ulster, on the other hand, may have at times looked dangerous, but it was all to little ultimate effect and, with Kiss now firmly installed in his second season, one senses the development of a certain frustration among their loyal following with the group's inconsistencies.
The IRFU's controversial decision to dispense with Ruan Pienaar's immense talents at season's end is the source of a lot of rancour. A challenging winter is in prospect, but the talent is there, and the depth too.
Provincial priorities will take a back seat for the next month: an opportunity to breathe and take stock in Limerick, and a time for some serious self-examination in Belfast.
Sunday Indo Sport