Ulster's heroic march reaching full stride
MUNSTER 16 ULSTER 22
FOLLOW that Mark Anscombe. Brian McLaughlin has overseen a remarkable transformation in Ulster fortunes, as well as shifting the balance of power in Irish rugby -- yet he will be moved aside at the end of the season for an unproven New Zealander.
It seems scarcely credible after the 'team that Brian built' marched into history by consigning Munster to only their second Heineken Cup defeat in Thomond Park with a performance full of skill, self-belief and a refusal to accept what most saw as inevitable.
The theme of the week was how Ulster's overseas reliance may not be providing the best-case scenario for Ireland coach Declan Kidney, but those players were giving the province a rock-solid foundation to build upon, with the steel to make it last -- and so it proved.
The imports were immense. Pedrie Wannenburg produced easily his finest performance in a Ulster jersey, his abrasive impact matched by the sublime skills of Ruan Pienaar, who struck for 14 of his side's 22 points.
Stefan Terblanche used every ounce of his experience to provide solidity from the back in intimidating circumstances while, in the front row, John Afoa refused to give up against a more powerful scrum and still unearthed the energy to scramble back as part of an extraordinary defensive effort.
And, behind Afoa, captain Johann Muller was the mortar that kept Ulster standing when it looked as though the visitors had to collapse in the face of Munster's ferocious fightback.
Their Irish colleagues raised their games accordingly, led by Stephen Ferris, who was not supposed to be able to walk a few days ago but ended up charging away with the Man of the Match award.
Rory Best emphasised why he is one of the finest hookers in the game and, still only 29, a potential Ireland captain for the 2015 World Cup, while Paddy Wallace continued his fine run of form and Chris Henry, yellow card notwithstanding, put himself firmly in the mix for the summer tour of New Zealand.
As did Craig Gilroy, Ulster's try-scoring hero (a fantastic solo effort which technically should have included an inside pass to Ian Humphreys but spoke volumes about the youngster's self-assurance).
The winger, unprompted, spoke afterwards of how significant an influence McLaughlin has been on his career, but the man himself had no inclination to gloat or offer a verbal two fingers to the bosses who do not think he is up to the task of "bringing Ulster forward".
Rather, he expressed a quiet satisfaction with a result he acknowledged as being the highlight of his career.
"Last year in the quarter-finals, we went to Northampton with hope; we came down here with expectation," said McLaughlin. "The aim was always to get ourselves to the top table. We needed to get in the right people and they have brought the others along with them."
It was an extraordinary collective performance that saw Ulster lead 19-0 after half an hour and then find the resolve to hold out as Munster tore back at them and a feral home support waited for them to wilt.
That it never happened is testament to the work McLaughlin has done with this group of players and the upshot is that he has elevated a province of perennial underachievers to the status of second Irish province -- a shift in the balance of power in Irish rugby.
It may not be an irreversible shift, but it is certainly a seismic one and now Munster, about to appoint a new coach to replace Tony McGahan, must rebuild on the solid base laid by the Australian.
Even though they will be crushed by this reverse, Munster deserve immense credit for hauling themselves back into the contest. Paul O'Connell made a mockery of the five weeks he has spent recovering from a knee injury sustained against France, while Conor Murray and Donnacha Ryan had big impacts despite their injury lay-offs.
Munster's best player was No 8 James Coughlan, who did his utmost to get his team back into the game with a tireless succession of carries. He has to be in the mix for New Zealand now while Simon Zebo, although he had a couple of ropey defensive moments, notched up another Heineken Cup try with customary zeal.
Referee Romain Poite is not the most popular man in this part of the country and the penalty count went heavily against the home team. However, a despondent McGahan, while acknowledging this, did not believe it was the reason Munster are out of the Heineken Cup.
"It was (significant)," said McGahan. "But I don't think it was the be-all, end-all in this game. The win was well within our grasp, but Ulster were terrific all over the park, they tracked back exceptionally well.
"It is hugely disappointing but we still have another competition to play for and it is up to the management to ensure we respond to this."
In the end, a 19-0 deficit was too steep to recover from, even though it was back to 19-10 at half-time following Zebo's try and Ronan O'Gara's conversion and penalty on the stroke of half-time.
Ulster's scores had come from Gilroy, the boot of Pienaar and an excellent Ian Humphreys drop goal -- the Ulster scoring was all the more remarkable given the vast majority of action had taken place in Ulster's half. When Munster clawed it back to 19-13 with Chris Henry still in the bin, there was a sense of inevitability about proceedings, based on a long tradition of Munster fightbacks. Ulster were having none of it. Remarkably, McLaughlin made no substitutions, which denied Kidney the chance of further assessment of Paul Marshall or to look at potential Ireland props, but also spoke volumes about Ulster's determination and resilience.
Leinster still look the most likely Irish province to triumph, but it is hard to see Ulster not making the final now though the province may face a citing after an Ulster boot appeared to come into contact with a Munster head.
Edinburgh cannot be discounted in Lansdowne Road, but if Ulster replicate even 75pc of this intensity, they will be too strong for Michael Bradley's side, while their supporters (fantastic in Thomond) will relish the opportunity to pack out the stadium -- as they did so memorably in 1999.
As for McLaughlin, if Ulster don't want him, you would imagine that there are plenty of others who will and he realised the importance of what he has achieved, while acknowledging that there is more to come.
"It is the start of something special, but we are not there yet."
They are pretty close, and it is McLaughlin who has brought them there.
MUNSTER -- F Jones; D Hurley (J Murphy 57), K Earls, L Mafi, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray (T O'Leary 72); W du Preez, M Sherry (D Varley 67), BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony (D Wallace 72), T O'Donnell (D O'Callaghan 59), J Coughlan.
ULSTER -- S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg. Yellow card: Henry (36)
REF -- R Poite (France)