Sunday 25 February 2018

Jackson holds nerve to deny Munster vital win

Ulster 23 Munster 23

Paddy Jackson, Ulster
Paddy Jackson, Ulster
Munster's CJ Stander is tackled by Darren Cave of Ulster
Ulster's Jared Payne is tackled by Jack O'Donoghue of Munster
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It may have been a largely ordinary Guinness Pro 12 to this point but you can't argue with the quality of the finish.

And with three instalments to go, between next weekend's final round in regulation plus the semis and final, we may yet come to forget that the end of May is where the Heineken Cup final is supposed to be.

This was a cracking game in good conditions and before a full house. You wondered if we might end up with the same pair meeting again before the curtain comes down, and we still might. If so we're unlikely to be seeing Iain Henderson. Indeed we'll hardly see him in any case unless he receives what would be extraordinary leniency after being sent off for leading with his head in cleaning out replacement Ronan O'Mahony.

Remarkably three teams are on 70 points going into the last round, while Ulster, the fourth semi-finalist, are on 69. Neil Doak's side will have to travel to Glasgow - beaten surprisingly by the Ospreys on Friday night - while Ospreys have to go to the Sportsground.

Anthony Foley looked fit to be tied at the finish, for going into the last minute his team were in pole position on the table, with the Dragons to come in Cork on Saturday. At that point they were looking at having to win, any old way, to secure top spot. This draw however complicates the issue for them, as games won is the first criterion to separate teams on the same number of table points.

"It was bitter-sweet," he said afterwards. "Coming up here and getting a result is a positive and it's something we worked hard for but it was disappointing to concede a try in the last minute of the first half and another one in the last minute of the second."

You could understand Foley's demeanour for his team looked home and hosed. From the first whistle of the second half they shifted up a gear, and their forwards were outstanding.

Ulster did them at the finish however. When the excellent Keith Earls went over in the corner on 77 minutes, after the Munster pack had given their opponents a good seeing-to on the far side of the field, you sensed it was all over. The home side worked their way into Munster's 22 and a fine pass from Paddy Jackson put Paul Marshall over in the corner. Then, for good measure, he nailed the conversion. That's exactly how he would have wanted to finish a game attended by Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

You have to credit Ulster for hanging in, given the dominance of the Munster forwards in the second half. It wasn't just that the away team had the better scrum, but when they attacked close to the ruck - and off the lineout - they looked in complete control. And behind them Ian Keatley was in top form. He was six from six when he addressed the conversion to Earls's try - from very wide on the right - and even as it slipped past the post you didn't feel it would be costly.

We got an earlier indication of how quickly the tide can turn however: look at the last minute of the first half. Keatley had Munster 9-0 in front as the bagmen were gathering their stuff to head to the changing room. Then the complexion changed competely.

First Ulster got a foothold in the Munster 22 and picked up a penalty from a driven maul. Then, from the restart, Rory Best did well to pick up a ball tapped back by Paul O'Connell to get the home team going forward again. They attacked left and then cut back and a nice offload form Henderson put Bowe in space. His finish was top class.

So Ulster went in 10-9 ahead - they had played lots of rugby in that period and would have been off the mark earlier had Bowe not got his depth wrong on a run-in - but they couldn't build on it such was the dominance of Foley's team after the break. Irish Independent Park should be heaving on Saturday.

Scorers - Ulster: P Marshall, T Bowe try each; P Jackson 3 pens, 2 cons; Munster: K Earls try; I Keatley 6 pens.

Ulster: L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave (S McCloskey 56), P Nelson (P Marshall 64); P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black (A Warwick 62), R Best (capt), W Herbst (B Ross 51), D Tuohy, F van der Merwe, I Henderson (rc 74), R Wilson (R Diack 30), C Henry

Munster: F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo (R O'Mahony 27); I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Ryan ht), E Giunazu, S Archer (BJ Botha ht), D Ryan, P O'Connell, P O'Mahony (capt), CJ Stander, T O'Donnell (J O'Donoghue 4)

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

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