Friday 23 February 2018

Flannery injury casts cloud on Reds' show of strength

Munster 35 Ulster 10

JOHN O'BRIEN at Thomond Park

IN the end it was a hammering, and that was cruel on Ulster who brought a young side to the Limerick cauldron and instructed them to play without fear or inhibition.

And they were still there, still competitive after 74 minutes, when Munster hit them with a barrage of tries and pulled away in a breathless finale. Whatever elation Munster felt, though, was tempered by the sight of Jerry Flannery hobbling away at the end in obvious discomfort.

Flannery had come on for Damien Varley 12 minutes into the second half and the ripple his appearance sent through the stands told how much he had been missed since picking up a calf injury last October. Along with Flannery, they also brought on Tony Buckley, Lifeimi Mafi, Tomas O'Leary and Barry Murphy. Ulster simply couldn't compete with such firepower. And there was no real shame in it.

Just three of the side that had capitulated so tamely against Leinster last Monday survived and it was the strongest possible statement the Ulster management could have made. Of all the provinces, they had made the most eye-catching foreign signings this season, yet the anticipated improvement has been slow in coming.

There was something significant about their approach. It seemed a novelty, too, that with Rory Best restored as hooker and captain, 13 of their starting 15 were natives of the province, an indication that, for all their costly imports, maybe the home-grown kids offer a bright future after all.

A shaky start might have unnerved them, but they regained their stride quickly. Niall Ronan had pilfered their first lineout and pushed Munster quickly into dangerous territory, but it didn't set a template for what followed. Ulster enjoyed little enough possession, but they were bright and economical with what fell their way. Their intent to run and ability to find gaps in Munster's rearguard was eye-catching and impressive.

It was clear early enough that, in order to protect their proud home record, Munster would have to dig in and fight. Paddy Wallace kicked Ulster in front after Munster's much-maligned scrum folded again and that early score visibly boosted their confidence. TJ Anderson darted over for a try soon afterwards, a move that had its genesis in the flowing rugby being produced by their backline, led superbly by Wallace and Paul Marshall.

Ulster led 10-6 at the break and, critically, that was a poor reflection of the spirited rugby they had played. Midway through the half, Marshall had shown initiative with a quick-tap penalty and, moments later, almost pierced the Munster defence to score a try. Instead, they went away with nothing. Munster, in contrast, went sniping at the other end and were fortunate to come away with a Paul Warwick penalty. On that twist of fate, probably, the game was decided.

Maybe it was inevitable, anyway, that Munster's power and superior resources would prove telling. Youth and courage can only take you so far at Thomond Park. Even as they struggled in the opening half, it was a source of encouragement for Munster that they were getting to grips with Ulster's scrum, even managing a turnover ball. They had O'Leary, Mafi and the rest, too, kicking their heels on the bench, offering further reassurance. They had all the trump cards.

Being Munster, of course, they were happy enough to grind their way to victory, even if something more aesthetically pleasing had been anticipated. Denis Hurley's try shortly after the restart was a thing of beauty, coming after a scything run from Scott Deasy after the full-back had been released by Keith Earls. Ulster were still in touch, but more errors were starting to litter their play, legs beginning to tire.

After that, Munster went back to being themselves: dominating possession, advancing inside Ulster territory, seeking the score that would kill the game. With 10 minutes remaining they had a series of put-ins near the Ulster line and it would have been a significant boost to their confidence had it resulted in tangible reward, but Tony Buckley was penalised for early engagement and Ulster cleared the danger.

Their reprieve was merely temporary. By that stage, they were a spent force. Overall, Bryan McLaughlin's young side had performed valiantly, but the last six minutes were a horror show in which they were hammered with tries from Tommy O'Donnell, Murphy and Mafi, a fate that seemed cruel and terribly unjust.

Scorers -- Munster: D Hurley, O'Donnell

B Murphy, L Mafi tries; Warwick 3 cons, 3 pens. Ulster: Anderson try, Wallace pen, con

Munster: S Deasy; D Howlett, K Earls, S Tuitupou (L Mafi 55), Denis Hurley (B Murphy 76); P Warwick, P Stringer (T O'Leary 52); W du Preez (Darragh Hurley 72), D Varley (J Flannery 52), P Borlase (T Buckley 50), D Ryan, M O'Driscoll, B Holland, N Ronan (T O'Donnell 72), D Leamy

Ulster: J Smith (D McIlwaine 70); T Seymour, I Whitten, L Marshall, S Danielli; P Wallace, P Marshall; B Young (D Fitzpatrick 60), R Best, D Fitzpatrick (T Court h-t), T Barker (N McComb 41), R Caldwell, TJ Anderson, W Faloon, R Diack (C Henry 50)

Referee: D Philips (IRFU)

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