The Guinness Pro12 front-runners are neck and neck going the final day after Paddy Jackson’s touchline conversion earned 14-man Ulster a dramatic and deserved draw in the final moments of an enthralling derby.
It leaved Munster tied with Ospreys and Glasgow on 70 points with Ulster one back ahead of their visit to Scotland to face the Warriors next weekend.
This had everything. An Ulster side who played some scintillating rugby almost undone by a gnarled Munster who took their opportunities when they came and will rue Ian Keatley’s one missed kick, the conversion of Keith Earls’ 77th minute try, that allowed Ulster one last chance.
That had fans heading to the exits rueing Nigel Owens’ decision to issue a red card to Iain Henderson who had so dominated Munster in the opening exchanges. The Ireland star could miss the rest of the season as a result of his head-first clear-out on Ronan O’Mahony, but it looked a tough call on the brilliant youngster.
He had tormented Peter O’Mahony in an awesome first-half display on a day where Jackson proved his class and should have done enough to convince the watching Joe Schmidt to bring him to the World Cup.
The win took its toll on Munster too, with Tommy O’Donnell and Simon Zebo limping off during a tough first-half in which they thought they’d done enough to go in ahead. They battled back well and thought they’d won it until Paul Marshall scampered over in the corner and Jackson delivered a brilliant conversion.
The draw was a fair result.
Munster will have been bitterly disappointed to go in behind at the interval having survived the best attack Ulster had to offer for 38 minutes.
After playing quintessential away cup rugby and building a 9-0 lead through the boot of Ian Keatley, they appeared to have managed the first-half perfectly until Chris Henry forced a scrum with some brilliant work on the deck and the white scrum powered through to win a penalty.
Paddy Jackson kicked it over and, with seconds ticking towards half-time, Keatley went for a contestable kick-off when he might have kicked it deep.
Paul O’Connell won the high ball, but Rory Best read his Ireland colleague’s intentions and collected the tap down. Sensing blood, Ulster moved the ball right where Henderson took two tacklers in his stride and off-loaded to Tommy Bowe who cut inside Felix Jones and beat Conor Murray brilliantly to score.
Jackson converted to ensure a 10 point swing with the last kick of the half to give his side a lead they deserved for their endeavour alone.
Working in tandem with his good mate Henderson, the Ireland fly-half ran his backline brilliantly and must have impressed Joe Schmidt with his performance.
Keatley opened the scoring after six minutes for a Munster side who started strongly but lost Tommy O’Donnell in the early stages, before the Jackson show began and it became clear the visiting side were in for a high tackle count.
Anthony Foley’s men were living by the seat of their pants at times, but their line held throughout and it was they who came closest to scoring when Jackson’s pass to Jared Payne didn’t go to hand and Keith Earls chipped in behind Best and beat the hooker in a foot-race to kick on.
The Ireland wing must have thought he was in, only for Henderson to reel him in for speed and do enough to prevent the try.
It was a remarkable feat of athleticism from the young flanker who was growing into the game, but Munster furthered their lead when Callum Black was adjudged to have driven in at an angle at a scrum and Keatley nailed the difficult penalty.
He didn’t err minutes later when Henderson came in from the side at a ruck and, as half-time approached, it looked like Munster had effected a trademark away performance.
Instead, Foley had to rip up his notes thanks to Ulster’s late flourish and Jackson extended the lead by three after the interval when Keatley had taken his opposite number out.
Munster stepped up the pace despite an uncharacteristic Peter O’Mahony knock-on and Keatley reduced the arrears to a solitary point when Best was penalised for not releasing in the tackle under his own posts.
The visiting team had made changes up front and BJ Botha was making his presence felt on his return to Belfast. Munster’s pack forced a penalty from a scrum in their own half, then mauled the lineout ball forward imposingly before Stuart McCloskey forced a choke tackle on Andrew Smith in midfield.
The Reds were undeterred, marching Ulster back on their own ball and forcing Robbie Diack to knock-on at the base, before forcing a penalty on their own ball to allow Keatley put his side back in front.
Neil Doak introduced Andrew Warwick to shore up the scrum and it worked, allowing them gain some field position and they almost exploited it with a clever lineout move with Henderson dropping it off to Ruan Pienaar who drew Eusebio Guinazu and switched with Bowe who raced through.
However it all came apart when the Ireland wing attempted to put Henry over, with his final pass unable to find the intended target and Munster escaped.
Again they used their maul to good effect and began targeting the diminutive Paul Marshall who was brought on to the wing for Peter Nelson. It worked a charm when Murray chipped for Keith Earls who won the ball and, while nothing came of it, Nigel Owens was playing advantage for blocking and Keatley extended the lead to five.
That lasted barely a minute as Smith came in from the side at a ruck and Jackson knocked the ball over from right in front.
Jackson engineered field position through a clever loop on Payne and pass to wide who chipped into the ’22 and then forced the turnover. With scrum advantage, Ulster went wide right where Dan Tuohy chipped ahead when the pass was on. Owens had called advantage over and again Munster survived.
Touch-judge Nigel Correll called the Welsh referee’s attention to the previous ruck and they called for a replay.
After several viewings, they adjudged Henderson to have led with the head at the ruck when clearing Ronan O’Mahony out and he harshly reached for the red card.
That took the wind out of the home side’s sails and Munster went for the jugular as Henderson took his seat ruefully in the stand, using their lineout to get up the field and then sending Earls over in the right corner to score.
Keatley missed the conversion to give Ulster some hope of a draw with two minutes remaining and back they came.
They went through their phases with McCloskey and Franco van der Merwe prominent, before the big centre used his brilliant footwork to get close to the line. Ulster moved the ball wide and, despite Munster slowing the ball down at the next ruck, Jackson found Marshall wide and he dotted down.
It was all down to Jackson from the touchline and he wasn’t helped by gamesmanship from O’Connell but remained cool, sweetly sending the ball through the posts to earn the draw.
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 61), R Best (capt), W Herbst (B Ross 52); D Tuohy, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson (R Diack 30).
Munster - F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo (R O’Mahony 27); I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Ryan h-t), E Guinazu, S Archer (BJ Botha 49); D Ryan, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell (J O’Donoghue 3), CJ Stander.
Referee: N Owens (Wales)
What a come-down this season must have been for Andrew Trimble. It's been a write-off after the unfortunate case of him injuring his same toe twice. He originally damaged the ligament during an Ulster game last October.