Pienaar holds off Munster
Ulster 29 Munster 19
If 2014 continues in a similar vein to this cracking inter-pro clash at Ravenhill then we're in for a treat.
Full on, intense and with storylines aplenty, Ulster denied Munster a heroic comeback, at least two bonus points and a 10-game unbeaten run in a dramatic finish to a superb derby.
With seven points in it and three minutes to go, the Reds had fought back from 20-0 down to get over the line for their fourth try with their third rolling maul, only for referee Alain Rolland to judge them held-up without referring the incident to the television match official.
Ulster forced a penalty from Munster's five-metre scrum and then went down the other end to send the league leaders home with nothing but a worryingly long injury list.
Apart from the casualties this was the perfect warm-up for round five of the Heineken Cup pool stages and the crunch clashes to come.
Ian Keatley's missed kicks cost Munster 11 points, with coach Rob Penney later revealing that he has struggled with a groin injury that is affecting his kicking. Mark Anscombe, meanwhile, will be working on his Ulster side's rolling maul defence all week ahead of the visit of Montpellier.
Both New Zealanders will be happy with elements of their sides' displays, with Penney praising his side's capacity to fight their way back into the game.
"I'm really disappointed, the lads did a great job," he said. "To work our way back to four points down, having not kicked many goals, and giving ourselves an opportunity to score another one was disappointing, but I'm also really pleased with how the guys responded to the pressures.
"This team have a great deal of fortitude, they were up against an Ulster side who have a great deal of quality. We probably left 12 or 15 points out there through our kicking, but it was a great effort. (Ruan) Pienaar kicked everything, that was the difference."
It was two of Ulster's imports who proved the difference, with Pienaar imperious from placed balls and Jared Payne superb in every facet of the game.
The South African opened the scoring with a penalty and it might have been more minutes later as Payne chipped over the top for Craig Gilroy to chase, but Ivan Dineen impeded the winger and Rolland awarded a penalty.
The home faithful were unhappy that it wasn't followed by a yellow card, but they were soon celebrating as Paddy Jackson's deft chip put Payne over for the opening try.
Pienaar converted and, as Keatley missed two kickable efforts into the wind, he sent one over from 51m to extend the lead.
Under pressure on their own ball, Munster's kick-chase became looser as the half went on and Andrew Trimble returned a Felix Jones effort with interest before sending Luke Marshall down the left.
He didn't have the gas, but Cathal Sheridan's loose kick allowed Payne to split the defence and Dave Foley stopped Jackson short of the line, before Andrew Conway and Casey Laulala forced John Afoa into touch.
The red line wasn't to hold firm, however, as Duncan Williams knocked on in Ulster territory and Payne ghosted through with the loose ball. He found Trimble, whose march was stopped by Dineen but he off-loaded to Darren Cave who touched down.
Munster got back into it before the break as Keatley spotted a gap outside Pienaar and sent Dineen over, but his conversion clipped the post on the way wide.
He missed again after the interval, before finally getting off the mark as Munster ground their way back into the game through their rolling maul.
Stephen Archer forced Tom Court into a penalty at a scrum, Keatley sent the ball to the corner with a raking kick and Munster's march was initially hauled down illegally by Iain Henderson and Afoa. Keatley went to the corner again and Ulster couldn't stop Dave Kilcoyne touching down from the maul.
The fly-half narrowed the gap to eight points with the conversion and with a half an hour remaining it was game on.
Pienaar missed a chance to extend Ulster's lead with a long-range effort into the wind, but he made no mistake minutes later when Casey Laulala gave a silly penalty away after a mad-cap period of the home side attack.
Back came Munster and a stray Ulster hand in the visitors' attacking ruck saw Rolland give another penalty, Keatley sent it to touch and the Munster maul took over again with James Coughlan this time scoring.
Keatley nailed the conversion and suddenly Munster were four points down, 23-19, and a try away from the bonus point, but a bizarre decision by Rolland to punish Williams and O'Mahony for a seemingly legitimate poach at the ruck allowed Pienaar settle his side and restore the seven-point lead.
That made the draw the best Munster could hope for, but back they came by forcing a scrum from the kick-off and Johne Murphy chipped behind and Payne was forced to kick to touch.
Out came the maul again and, once more, Ulster hauled it down.
Keatley went to the corner Munster rumbled again, but although they got over the line a white jersey got underneath and Munster were given the five-metre scrum.
Penney lamented Rolland's decision not to go upstairs for a look -- he had spent much of the first-half reviewing incidents on the big screen -- and he wasn't happy moments later when Munster's front-row lost their footing at the five-metre scrum and the referee gave Ulster the chance to escape.
Ravenhill erupted and then celebrated further when Paul O'Connell knocked on deep in Munster territory and then saw yellow for a bit of back-chat to the referee.
Pienaar sent the penalty over to deny Munster the losing bonus point and finally decide matters to the delight of the home faithful and Anscombe.
"Munster's forward pack is formidable, we got to 20-0 but we were a bit loose and allowed them a try at half-time and they got their line-out maul down, which is hard to stop," he said.
"We stopped the last one which was most important and then had an outstanding scrum on our goal line and came away with the points, which was pleasing."
ULSTER -- J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court (C Black 58), R Herring (N Annett 74), J Afoa (D Fitzpatrick 80); I Henderson (L Stevenson 63), D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry (S Doyle 67), R Wilson (R Wilson 64).
MUNSTER -- F Jones; R O'Mahony (J Murphy 51), C Laulala, I Dineen, A Conway; I Keatley, C Sheridan (D Williams 36); D Kilcoyne (J Ryan 71), D Varley (D Casey 39), S Archer (BJ Botha 58); Donncha O'Callaghan (D Foley 30), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, J Coughlan (CJ Stander 72).
Ref -- A Rolland (IRFU)
Exciting munster trio pen new deals until 2016
SOME of Munster's bigger names have yet to resolve their futures, but the Reds have moved to nail down three of their rising stars on contracts until 2016.
Loosehead prop James Cronin, tighthead John Ryan and scrum-half Cathal Sheridan have all penned new deals with the province and the IRFU after impressive outings in recent weeks.
Cronin has emerged as a potential Ireland bolter with his stellar displays in the scrum where he has gained parity at least with Dave Kilcoyne. He started in the away win at Perpignan where Munster forced a penalty try, while Sheridan has done well in Conor Murray's absence.
Coach Rob Penney has yet to finalise his own future with the province, but he welcomed the trio of deals. "It's great to have these young guys commit their talent and future to Munster. It just shows once again the hard work that is being done at grassroots and underage level for guys of this level to break through and it's a good thing for the province," he said.
Munster's next task is to secure Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls too, while also sorting their coaching ticket for next season.