Arnold's red turns tide as Ulster show New Year resolution
Ulster 24 Munster 17
In a game of two halves, Ulster won the vital one.
After an hour of play, Ulster had huffed and puffed to little effect, outgunned at scrum, maul lineout and breakdown, down 17-0 at the break.
When they returned, they did so without their starting props and as their opening scrum remained remarkably steady, renewed confidence oozed through the once bedraggled side.
Still, they remained 17-0 down but the chink of light was just enough to guide them to the end of the tunnel as the rest of the team now knew they could do their jobs once the front-rows were doing theirs.
They thought they had scored in the 50th minute when John Cooney exploited a massive hole in the defence to bound beneath the posts.
Referee Sean Gallagher wanted to investigate just why there had been such a hole and the TMO evidence showed that Greg Jones had played a part, illegally taking out John Ryan at the ruck.
The next intervention by the TMO would be more pivotal just after Ulster belatedly made their pressure count through Darren Cave's 58th-minute try.
During the move, Sam Arnold, a former player here, hit Christian Leali'ifano with a high shot, enough to warrant a red card in Gallagher's eyes and the momentum shifted dramatically as Fineen Wycherley had also been binned.
Three minutes later, Cave turned provider with a beautiful grubber kick to his right wing partner Craig Gilroy, who dotted down for his fifth try in as many games to leave Ulster just 12-17 adrift.
Munster tried to stem the tide but were drowning slowly; Ulster maintained the pressure and Gilroy nabbed his second from a well-worked lineout move.
Rob Lyttle crossed last for the bonus try to complete the stunning volte face.
Cave was a late recruit to the Ulster midfield as Louis Ludik became the latest squad member to submit to illness in this festive season; we cannot confirm the mischievous suspicion from a local cigarette-toting lag that his was a mild strain of Aussie 'flu.
Both these sides arrived into the New Year after heavy losses had undermined five-match winning runs that had preceded them; it was the nature of the heavy interprovincial defeats which had stuck in the craw like the driest of turkey meat.
Needless to say, the home side's desperate need to bounce back was more urgent, particularly as they will send a weakened side to full-strength Leinster in unwelcoming Dublin in just five days' time.
Munster had won their last two visits here; a first in a century hat-trick would prove too much for the home faithful to digest.
JJ Hanrahan was offered a third-minute chance to set history in motion but his 40-yard effort drifted right and wide of the posts.
He missed his next attempt too but the bonus was that it was a conversion; Munster's set-piece dominance early on laid the platform for the 14th-minute try, Niall Scannell bundled over the line following a second successful rolling maul gambit.
Ulster had enough ball but mostly behind the gain-line; three of the six penalty concessions derived from the breakdown, two from the scrum and one in a rolling maul.
Two lost lineouts, to add to the double defeat at scrum-time, reflected vast structural decay far beyond their inability to effect any gain-line success against the rushed red defensive wall.
They did appear to have a reasonable threat in open play when their initial probes were easily rebuffed but poor ball retention and option-taking undid them.
Munster were content to turn the screw on the deck and at set-piece; offered another scrum penalty in the 25th minute, they sensed blood and kicked to the corner.
Even with Billy Holland temporarily absent, Munster used his replacement Darren O'Shea to set up the menacing maul and, perfecting their recent practice, Scannell was once again helped across the line.
This time, Hanrahan hooked his kick well left; already, he had left eight points behind him.
They would prove crucial. Ulster responded by winning their third lineout in Munster territory; they lost all three.
Spilled balls from Charles Piutau bookended a third try from Munster as the home side visibly wilted beneath the heft of the Munster scrum.
Gallagher whistled for one penalty, the fourth in the set-piece, as Munster stood poised yards from the line, before losing his patience at the second shove and awarding a penalty try.
Relief for Hanrahan as a penalty try these days does not need to be converted. At 17-0 ahead, there were no questions that Munster had converted their physical superiority.
This was men against boys but Munster were fallible, over-throwing a lineout just before the break.
Ulster needed a fillip; they had a glimmer just before the break when offered the chance to do unto Munster what had been done to them - twice.
Spurning a kick to goal, they kicked to the corner but couldn't kick on; Jack O'Donoghue tore through the middle of the tight maul and frogmarched Rob Herring closer to the dressing-room, to which it seemed they couldn't spring quick enough.
Not before time, Ulster left their two props in the sheds at the break and the scrum noticeably steadied. Again, Ulster spurned a kickable penalty but, when the maul was repelled, they ended up with an impatient Leali'ifano flinging a million-dollar pass into touch.
They remained patient though, and as first Wycherley and then Arnold departed, they gradually wore their ragged prey down.
Lyttle, as he had done in Galway, scored the final try. Then, it only eased embarrassment. On this night, it may herald something much more positive.
ULSTER - C Piutau; C Gilroy, D Cave, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; C Leali'ifano, J Cooney; K McCall (C Black h-t), R Herring (capt), R Ah You (W Herbst h-t); A O'Connor, K Treadwell (R Diack 76); G Jones, N Timoney, J Deysel (M Rea 45).
MUNSTER - S Zebo (B Johnston 76); C Nash (S Fitzgerald h-t), K Earls, S Arnold, A Wootton;JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin (J Loughman 64), N Scannell (K O'Byrne 53), J Ryan (S Archer 53); D O'Shea, B Holland capt (F Wycherley 23); T O'Donnell (R Copeland 64), C Cloete, J O'Donoghue.
Ref - S Gallagher (IRFU).