Friday 24 November 2017

Munster get reality check from Ulster at Thomond

Munster 17 Ulster 19

Munster's Sean Dougall is tackled by Ulster's Stuart McCloskey during their Rabo Direct Pro12 defeat to Ulster in Thomond Park last night
Munster's Sean Dougall is tackled by Ulster's Stuart McCloskey during their Rabo Direct Pro12 defeat to Ulster in Thomond Park last night
Ulster's Michael Heaney is charged down by Munster's Sean Dougall, Paul O'Connell and James Coughlan
Duncan Williams scores Munster's first try against Ulster at Thomond Park
Gerhard van den Heever, Munster, is tackled by Rory Scholes, Ulster
Sean Dougall scores Munster's second try of the game
James McKinney, Ulster, kicks a penalty assisted by team-mate Michael Heaney
JJ Hanrahan, Munster, is tackled by Stuart McCloskey, Ulster
Munster's Damien Varley and Paul O'Connell leave the pitch after defeat to Ulster

Brendan Fanning at Thomond Park

The last time Ulster picked such a weakened team for an interpro it was Christmas 2011, against Leinster in the RDS, and their kids went home with an investment in the experience bank, and a concession of more than 40 points.

Given that at one point it looked like being twice that figure they considered it overall to have been a positive exercise. Their experience in Thomond Park last night, in wintry conditions against a near-full strength home side – was better in every respect.

They had to survive late chances to JJ Hanrahan – a drop-goal attempt with a couple of minutes of normal time remaining, and then a penalty shot on 82 minutes which was the last kick of the game – but they did just that, and deservedly so.

The result was immaterial to Ulster in terms of their mission next weekend, for they knew they would be on the road – and that road leads to Dublin against a Leinster side shaken by their experience against Edinburgh. But the boost to Ulster's confidence from this will be tremendous.

The only low point for them – in a game that gives them the double over Munster this season – was the injury to No 8 Nick Williams, who was stretchered off late in the first half with torn medial ligaments in his knee. Ulster haven't ruled him out yet from the semi-final, in the RDS on Saturday night, but that formality shouldn't be long in coming.

As for Munster, who started the game chasing a long shot of a home semi-final next Friday, there was little of the fluency evident in Edinburgh last weekend when they ran the home team off the park. Their mission now is to go to Scotstoun, where Glasgow are in fine fettle, with their tails between their legs. At this stage of the season players don't need what are euphemistically called 'wake-up calls.' Never mind the spin, this will not help Munster going to Glasgow.

The first thing the players on both sides had to do was negotiate the high winds which swept capriciously around the ground.

The second was to hang on to the greasy ball in the wet conditions. More rain came after the break and a crowd of about 10,000 felt like they had stumbled in on a January night.

Oddly enough the quality of the game got worse as the first half wore on, so what looked like developing into a decent show instead degenerated into Keystone Cops stuff at times, with passes thrown all over the shop and lineout accuracy well below par.

At the break it was 10-10, which hadn't looked too likely after 14 minutes by which stage Munster were 10-0 up and looking good. Ian Keatley put them ahead with a penalty on 10 minutes, and four minutes later he was converting a lovely touchdown by Duncan Williams after clever work down the tramlines between the scrumhalf, James Coughlan and James Downey.

Ulster finished the half better, however. The improvement started with Munster messing up the restart from the Williams try, to allow Michael Allen to put Michael Heaney over despite a dodgy-looking pass which was given the thumbs-up by the TMO. Despite the loss of Nick Williams, Ulster got better as the half wore on, with James McKinney – who featured in that RDS game three years ago – punishing Munster for a casual offside off a Duncan Williams box-kick to level the scores.

The Ulster outhalf took another three points just two minutes into the second half, but as with Munster in the first period, the kick-off reception was a disaster. This time Stuart McCloskey was stripped of possession, and a Keatley grubber was finished in fortunate circumstances by Sean Dougall. Keatley's conversion put the home team 17-13 ahead, but two McKinney penalties either side of the hour mark left Munster trailing by two going into the final quarter.

You could feel the unease among the natives when their side passed up one very kickable shot at goal – not unlike Toulon a couple of weeks ago – which could have restored the lead, and instead saw possession lost by Paul O'Connell on the charge close-in. They regretted it when it came down to those last few plays, which had a feel of desperation about them. Munster got what they deserved – as did Ulster. It makes for an interesting last four shake up next weekend, where Glasgow and Ulster will be feeling good about themselves.

Scorers – Munster: D Williams, S Dougall try each; I Keatley pen, 2 cons. Ulster: M Heaney try; J McKinney 4 pens, con. Munster: F Jones; G van den Heever, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo (K Earls 53); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 50), D Williams; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 62), D Varley (capt), J Ryan, D Foley, P O'Connell, P Butler, J Coughlan (T O'Donnell 53), S Dougall.

Ulster: C Gilroy; D McIlwaine, M Allen, S McCloskey, R Scholes (P Nelson 79); J McKinney, M Heaney (D Shanahan 77); C Black, R Herring (K McCall 77), A Warwick (A Macklin 59), L Stevenson, D Tuohy (capt)(N McComb 53), M McComish, N Williams (C Joyce 34), S Doyle.

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

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