Saturday 25 January 2020

It's a special victory but it's just the start -- Muller

MUNSTER 16 ULSTER 22

David Kelly

David Kelly

'South African by birth, Ulster by the grace of God.' Ulster thieved an old Munster slogan and with it stole away another chunk of the erstwhile champions' European mystique.

But this was inclusive of much, much more than Springbok beef. An Ulster core pulsed through this success. This was a momentous victory born of belief -- collectively and individually. Collectively, by dint of an extraordinary defensive effort that smothered Munster's attempts, sometimes illegally, to extract quick ball and impose any tempo on the game.

And individually, thanks to the breathtaking moment of slaloming magic from young Bangor flyer Craig Gilroy, whose wonderful try secured the outsiders a grip on proceedings that their vast reservoir of conviction demanded they would never relent.

Previously known principally by pedants as the first try scorer in the revamped Lansdowne Road stadium, Gilroy was only granted a debut in Ulster colours last season.

He scored a brace in that November 2010 debut against Cardiff. But yesterday's defining moment will be recalled with salivating satisfaction in the annals of Ulster lore for generations to come.

Gilroy's description of his scoring feat was almost as breathless as the event itself.

"Stefan put me away down the left wing with a great pass," he began. "It was just a flash after that. I beat one defender on the outside, then managed to step inside again and saw the try-line. I probably should have passed a couple of times. But I just went for it and got over.

"The line was right in front of me and I thought 'I'm in here, a sure try.' Then I saw (Lifeimi) Mafi coming for me. It's strange because I remember Brian (McLaughlin) explaining to me at the start of the season about ball transfer and fend. That was in my head. I managed to do that and get over."

That Ulster's opening 19-point blitz -- his worst ever start for Munster in a Heineken Cup clash as dejected Munster captain Paul O'Connell confessed afterwards -- emanated entirely from phases that started within their own half was just another aspect of an extraordinary afternoon's theatre.

As indecisive Munster struggled in narrow exchanges early on and suffered at the breakdown, Ulster sought to spin the ball at every available opportunity from deep. Gilroy's try was a direct product of such audacious ambition.

talented

"I thought we did well defensively against them and when we turned over ball we felt like we wanted to have a crack," agreed Gilroy. "We didn't want to kick it all the time. We've a talented backline and we just wanted to shift it when we got the chance. We proved we could do that today."

The collective belief was infused within much darker days than this. Last season's defeat at this stage, also away and after leading at half-time, to Northampton Saints, inured them so stoically against wanting to experience such desolation ever again.

"We mentioned last year all week," said South African captain Johann Muller. "We've learned so much over the last three years and in big away games over the last two years. We've lost big games and lost them with silly things like the first phase not functioning.

"Those experiences helped us today. We said at half-time we were in the same boat last year and we were determined as a group not to go the same way again."

And for all that, even with the entirely unexpected buffer, a Munster team in the prime of their Heineken Cup health would surely have succeeded in hauling in their northern rivals.

That their composure was evicted at such crucial times owes a huge amount to Ulster's prevailing sense of certainty in their defiant defensive commitment.

"It was a special effort from everybody and management," augmented Muller. "We had some time to prepare. We knew it would be physical and tough against a champion side who only lost here once before in Heineken rugby.

"To be 19 points up against a quality Munster side you have to do something special to lose it and we nearly did. With the yellow card (for Chris Henry) we had and then they started chipping away with scores. They played really well in those middle 30 minutes or so.

"It's special to get the win after being through all that."

For his part, O'Connell could only project dejection. His side had enough possession to extricate themselves from the sorry mess of the opening quarter. His explanation of how they failed to do so was ruefully honest.

"Good teams convert points when they're near the line. But good teams don't concede points when they're there and that's what Ulster did," he said.

And, as Muller emphasised the strength of bond that exists within the Ulster squad, it was difficult not to hear echoes of similar clarion calls from Munster dressing-rooms in these parts.

"The more you play together, the more continuity you have together as a team, the more trust is there between players and management," he said. "It's a great victory and something really special for us as a team. We know it's just the start."

Ulster were the first team to explore the unique marriage between Ireland and the Heineken Cup in 1999. Few neutrals will begrudge them as they seek to renew their vows.

Irish Independent

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