Ulster's PRO 14 playoff bid falls short as Munster battle back to claim draw at Thomond Park
Munster 24 Ulster 24
Ulster's trophyless run will enter its 13th year, as they failed to pick up the bonus point win that they needed to give them any hope of reaching the Guinness PRO14 quarter-finals.
This entertaining 24-24 draw at Thomond Park won't be enough to over take Edinburgh in third place of the table, and so they face yet another campaign without any silverware.
Their season is not over yet however, as Ulster will face the Ospreys at home in a Champions Cup qualifier in three weeks.
For Munster, their fate had already been sealed as they couldn't catch leaders Glasgow, nor could they be overtaken by the Cheetahs.
Johann van Graan's side will meet Edinburgh in a quarter-final meeting back at Thomond Park next weekend. The South African head coach got a good look at plenty of his younger players and he will have been impressed by Stephen Fitzgerald from full-back, while Darren Sweetnam showed signs that he is nearing a return to his best with an electric performance on the wing.
Gerbrandt Grobler though, was the standout performer for the home side as he disrupted the Ulster lineout all game and carried relentlessly.
This season has been a nightmare from start for finish for Ulster and it might yet get worse, if they fail to secure Champions Cup rugby. Leading 24-14 at half time and having scored three tries, they didn't register a single point in the second half, which was ultimately their downfall.
To make matters worse, they also lost Iain Henderson to what looked like a serious knee injury midway through the half.
Bryn Cunningham, Ulster's Operations Director, did his best to lift the mood however, when he went on television at half time and confirmed that the club had their new head coach lined up. He refused for reveal the name of the man tasked with reversing Ulster's fortunes as we wait an official announcement from the club. The front runner has been the Australian Andy Friend but word on the street is that it could yet be someone who has not been linked with the job.
Anyway, back to matters on the pitch and Ulster got off to the worst possible start when they conceded a sloppy try of the highest order after just two minutes.
Robin Copeland managed to snag David Shanahan at the base of a ruck and when the ball spilled loose from the scrum-half's grasp, his opposite number Duncan Williams, was quickest to react as be pounced to score. As Jono Gibbes' reaction flashed up on the big screen, you felt like it might be one of those days for the visitors but they rallied well.
The referee Ben Whitehouse consulted his TMO before awarding the try and when JJ Hanrahan added the extras, it gave Munster an early 7-0 lead.
They were pegged back however, and again it came from an error. Hanrahan knocked on in midfield and Ulster's counter-attack was rapid. Clive Ross won the ball back and when it eventually found its way to Jacob Stockdale, the Ireland winger looked he was about to break clear and score, but a brilliant last ditch Sweetnam tackle stopped him short. But Stockdale showed excellent composure to play a sumptuous offload for Stuart McCloskey, who had the easiest of tasks to score.
The impressive Johnny McPhillips converted and then added a penalty as his side took the lead for the first time but that was quickly hampered when Henderson had to be helped off the pitch.
Shortly before the half hour mark, Munster struck for their second try and it all came from a searing Sweetnam break. The winger backed himself and his dancing feet bamboozled the defence. The winger was stopped short, as was James Cronin, but there was no halting Brian Scott who burrowed over from close range.
Hanrahan again added the extras for a 14-10 lead, but a disastrous last seven minutes of the half would prove extremely costly. The Ulster maul was beginning to get the upper hand and when Copeland pulled one down as it was marching towards the Munster 22, the Connacht-bound No 8 was sent to the sin bin and Ulster took full advantage with two quick-fire tries through their skipper.
From the resulting penalty, Ulster went to the corner and Rory Best was on the end of a powerful maul and he repeated the trick on the stroke of half time in almost identical fashion, as he scored a brace for the first time in his career.
McPhillips converted both for a 24-14 half-time lead at the end of a pulsating first 40. Just as it looked like Ulster would pull away from their hosts, a yellow card for Luke Marshall for not releasing in the tackle, eight minutes after the restart, put his side on the back foot. This time it was Munster's turn to make the most of their numerical advantage as Copeland went some away to making amends for his yellow card by dotting down under the posts.
Hanrahan's easy conversion cut the gap to three points (21-24). Hanrahan was outstanding from the tee all evening and he maintained his 100pc record with a 68th minute penalty that brought the teams level again. Ulster launched one final roll of the dice in the closing stages but they were repelled by a hugely aggressive defence that was led by one of their former players – Sam Arnold.
In keeping with how their lineout went all game, an error at the set-piece deep in the Munster 22, with Grobler again at the heart of it, brought an end to their challenge as well as their hopes of making the last eight.
Munster - S Fitzgerald; C Nash, S Arnold, D Goggin, D Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams (J Hart 56); J Cronin, M Sherry (capt) (R Marshall 56), B Scott (S Archer h-t); G Grobler, D O'Shea (J Kleyn 47); D O'Callaghan, C Oliver (J O'Donoghue 47), R Copeland.
Ulster - L Ludik; C Gilroy (T Bowe 69), L Marshall, S McCloskey (A Curtis 29), J Stockdale; J McPhillips, D Shanahan (P Marshall 45); C Black (A Warwick 55), R Best (capt) (R Herring 69), R Kane (T O'Toole 64); A O'Connor, I Henderson (K Treadwell 22); C Ross, S Reidy, N Timoney (C Henry 72).
Ref - B Whitehouse (Wales)