Tuesday 28 January 2020

Ulster smell bloodafter Red struggle


Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

Hugh Farrelly

LEINSTER coach Joe Schmidt cut a pretty contented figure following this well-executed victory at Thomond Park on Saturday night, but you suspect that Brian McLaughlin was exuding even greater satisfaction -- Ulster will be smelling blood after this.

McLaughlin oversaw an uber-confident, bonus-point victory in Ravenhill the night before (albeit against their target practice regulars Aironi) and this result will cement Ulster conviction that they can secure a seminal result when they travel south for their Heineken Cup quarter-final next weekend.

Munster go into that encounter with continuing fitness concerns over captain Paul O'Connell, his first-choice second-row partner Donnacha Ryan, flanker David Wallace and scrum-half Conor Murray and, while Ulster have their own worry over Stephen Ferris, this reverse emphasised Tony McGahan's need for a full-strength side, or close to it, to compete with the best teams.

Despite having no set-piece platform to build upon, Munster had done exceedingly well to bring the game back to 9-9 after trailing 9-3 at the break, only for Schmidt to 'release the Kraken' -- or in this case a bench packed with international potency -- and take the game away.

Sean O'Brien, Leo Cullen, Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Isaac Boss all arrived bristling with intent, and Munster did not have the weapons to see off the assault, with the result inevitable from about 20 minutes out as Man of the Match Isa Nacewa, quiet up until then, exploded into the game.

A despondent McGahan struggled to locate any positives afterwards, but there is some Munster solace to be taken from not conceding any tries (although Nacewa and Rob Kearney came very close) in an accomplished rearguard display where their scramble defence stood out.

The Munster coach was also relieved not to have sustained any further injuries beyond Keith Earls and BJ Botha, both taking blows to the rib area, and Dave O'Callaghan picking up a knee knock.

Schmidt said it felt "pretty good" to earn his first win at Thomond, having lost there a couple of times with Clermont, and was proud of the way his team dogged out a fairly dour contest where collapsed scrums were the dominant spectacle before Leinster's late surge.

The Leinster coach said there were no concerns surrounding out-half Jonathan Sexton, who picked up a slight muscle cramp, and his charges look well set for their home Heineken Cup assignment against a Cardiff side reeling from a spanking in Glasgow and Gavin Henson's latest sorry slide into scandal.

Meanwhile, McGahan is hoping for some good news this week and is optimistic on O'Connell, Ryan and Murray, claiming they have a "fair chance", adding that Wallace's slow re-introduction will continue to be monitored.

The Australian has done remarkably well to negotiate a consistent run of injury setbacks this season, and those juggling skills now face their ultimate test.

It does, however, create a familiar 'backs to the wall' scenario for the Munster men, and the traditional siege mentality which has served the province so well over the years will be accentuated by Ulster's growing swagger.

"We are really disappointed," said McGahan.

"We were second best in all areas. The set-piece denied us any platform and we gave up a lot of ball playing off scraps. We have a lot to work on, it gives us real call to attention about where we are -- in that respect I suppose you could look at it as the perfect way to go into next week."

In terms of the Pro12 title race, Leinster are a cool 10 points clear now, while Munster have dropped back to third and are jostling in a play-off pack alongside the Ospreys, Glasgow and Ulster.

But, for now, it is all about Europe, and while Leinster prepare to end Welsh hopes for another year, Munster and McGahan are searching for the right mindset to quell northern ambition.

"Starting from next week, there are no second chances," stressed McGahan.

"We need to get that realisation and heed the enormity of where we are at."

MUNSTER -- F Jones; J Murphy, K Earls (D Barnes 67), L Mafi, S Zebo; R O'Gara, T O'Leary (D Williams 66); M Horan, D Varley (M Sherry 51), BJ Botha; D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll, Dave O'Callaghan (W Du Preez 43, T O'Donnell 56), P O'Mahony, J Coughlan.

LEINSTER -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (F McFadden 34-37,66), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 60), E Reddan (I Boss 65); H van der Merwe (C Healy 53), S Cronin (R Strauss 59), M Ross (J Hagan 77); B Thorn (L Cullen 53), D Toner; K McLaughlin (J Hagan 43-53), S Jennings (S O'Brien 53), J Heaslip (capt).

REF -- N Owens (Wales)

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