Ulster complete stunning 17-point comeback to hand Munster another derby defeat
Ulster 24 Munster 17
Ulster completed a stunning second-half comeback against 14-men Munster, coming from 17-0 down to win 24-17, securing the bonus point with Rob Lyttle's last minute try.
Former Ulster player Sam Arnold's 58th minute sending-off, for a high shot on Christian Lealifano, proved crucial as, with Finian Wycherley also in the bin, Ulster made hay with a Craig Gilroy double and a Darren Cave try contributing to a remarkable win.
Munster left seven points from the boot of JJ Hanrahan behind them too and they will still be ruing the manner of defeat while Ulster will receive a huge morale boost by showing such character to come back from the dead.
The first-half evidence pointed in only one way – a comprehensive Munster win as they dominated simply every facet of play.
After former Munster man Jean Deysel conceded an early penalty, JJ Hanrahan missed the chance to earn his side an early lead as his 40-yard attempt was skewed right of the posts.
Ulster were carrying their Galway difficulties into the early throes, struggling at ruck time on and off the ball.
Even when they made 50 yards with some lovely play from Charles Piutau and Rob Lyttle, they coughed up the ball in possession when Jack O'Donoghue made a neat steal.
They created an over-lap on the right but a low percentage off-load from Stuart McCloskey drifted into touch; at least Ulster were now playing some ball.
Munster's set-piece strength was also a notable feature; two scrum penalties and a rolling maul penalty reflecting that fact as Ulster's two returning props struggled early on.
From one such position, Munster almost got in on the right-hand side, playing with an advantage; an excellent pick-up and pass from Simon Zebo setting Calvin Nash away but a combination of Piutau and McCloskey shunted the youngster into touch.
From the advantage, ever-present Billy Holland again plucked from the air and this time Munster took the direct route to the try-line, Niall Scannell bundled over beneath a heap of bodies.
JJ Hanrahan missed again from the tee and, when an exit kick went awry, one could understand why maybe he is not yet convincing coaches as a potential first-choice option at ten.
He missed his third kick in a row but, at least, it did follow Munster's second try, an almost carbon copy from Scannell after another rumbling maul, earned on the back of a third successive scrum penalty.
Now 10-0 after 25 minutes, it should really have been 18-0 with a decent kicker.
Ulster briefly visited Munster territory but, having forced a third throw-in within the red zone, promptly miscued the set-piece for a third successive occasion as the home crowd began grumbling.
Munster, benefiting again from Ulster's inability to retain the ball, ground their way back into scoring territory once more and, with Sean Gallagher losing patience with a crumpling Ulster scrum, awarded a penalty try.
Blessed relief for Hanrahan, whose conversion attempt was unnecessary but more misery for Ulster, now 17-0 down and running out of ideas and whatever puff they had.
They ended the half in reasonable nick, putting a few phases together after Nick Timoney's break when they managed to keep hold of the ball thereafter.
Spurning a penalty in overtime, they kicked to the corner in the hope that they could do to Munster what had been done to them – twice.
However, Jack O'Donoghue tore through the middle of the maul and frogmarched Rob Herring into touch. Not only out of play but surely now out of the game.
Ulster dumped their under-performing props at the break and immediately steadied their scrum and with half-time stinging their ears, started the second-half in much better fettle, forcing Munster into conceding a succession of penalties.
With Munster's stand-in captain receiving a team warning, Ulster needed to make their pressure count and they did so when John Cooney spotted a massive hole close in and dived beneath the posts.
But ten minutes of grinding work was undone when Sean Gallagher demanded TMO evidence of just why the gap had been created; he discovered that Greg Jones had taken out John Ryan in the ruck.
Back to square one for Ulster but they returned there quite quickly, forcing Finian Wycherely into the bin in the 55th minute as Munster's penalty count grew under the increasing pressure.
But the pressure needed points. Ulster kicked to the corner again and, finally, they got the score they craved in the 58th minute through Cave; Darren racing beyond the prone Lealifano as Munster's defence was pierced.
Again the TMO was involved, but only to check whether the hit on Lealifano was illegal; it was, and former Ulster man Sam Arnold was red-carded while John Cooney added the extras.
Now it was really game on as Ulster enjoyed at least a five-minute advantage with two men; and a further quarter with one.
Three minutes after scoring his try, Cave then created one, a beautiful grubber gathered by Craig Gilroy tight to the right-hand touchline which left them just five points adrift, 17-12, with nearly a quarter of the game remaining.
Enjoying their numerical advantage, Ulster went for the kill; Gilroy added a second try before Rob Lyttle crossed for the bonus point try in the final minute.
A game of two halves; but Ulster had won the important one.