Ulster come up short despite Best's brace
Munster 24 Ulster 24
Ulster came locked and loaded to a sparsely attended Thomond Park yesterday evening looking for a five-pointer to put them in the quarter-finals of the Guinness PRO14. It's doubtful they ever came to this venue with that sort of agenda, but when they looked at the Munster line-up they would have realised it wasn't that far-fetched.
And when by half time they were 75 per cent there, it looked like their job in the second half would be about putting one foot after the other. Or rather sticking it up their jumper from any lineout within shouting distance of the Munster line. That picture changed in the third quarter when Munster shored up their scrum - a source of penalties, which led to lineout mauls for Ulster - with reinforcements. Ulster couldn't score at all in the second half.
It had a huge bearing on the game, for by the time referee Ben Whitehouse wrapped it up Ulster were short of their target. They will have to settle for a play-off for a Champions Cup place against Ospreys in three weeks. To compound their problems, Iain Henderson was helped off with a knee injury, the implications of which will be clearer tomorrow.
Munster will be back at the same venue next Saturday for their quarter-final.
It was an extraordinarily tense finish. Munster were in reasonable control until Dave O'Callaghan's poor work on the ground after a tackle saw him penalised for holding on. That allowed Ulster the possession and position to chase the fourth try they needed to stay alive. The clock was in the red by the time the outstanding Gerbrandt Grobler picked off a miscued Ulster lineout after their outhalf Johnny McPhillips had shown real nerve to plant the ball on the five-metre line. Ulster's new coach will have been impressed by their 10.
Munster might have been forgiven for thinking that despite the wholesale changes they were onto a good thing given the nature and speed of their opening try. From a lineout exit five metres from the Ulster lineout, Robin Copeland managed to disrupt David Shanahan at scrumhalf, allowing Duncan Williams to pounce and score. The referral upstairs clarified the closeness of the call: Copeland made contact before Shanahan lifted the ball it would have been a penalty to the away side. Instead, with JJ Hanrahan's conversion, it was 7-0 to the home side.
Before the congratulations had stopped it was 7-7 when Jacob Stockdale did really well off a loose ball to put Stuart McCloskey over. On a perfect night for rugby it looked like it was going to be one of those games. As things developed though it became the polar opposite of a throw-about rugby where the two teams scored in turn. Munster's place in the quarter-finals may have been secure before a ball was kicked but once the blood was up they were full-on.
The dominance of the Ulster scrum - until the changes in the third quarter - was a killer for the home team. Plus their struggle to contain the Ulster maul. It was a scrum penalty that gave Ulster a 10-7 lead on 16 minutes, and despite a try from Brian Scott from close range which, with Hanrahan's extras, put Munster 14-10 ahead before the half hour, two mauled tries from Rory Best in the last seven minutes of the half put Ulster in the driving seat, 24-14, going off at the break.
A reinforced Munster were a lot more competitive after the interval, which forced Ulster to play more ball than they wanted. The first sign of the change came with a scrum penalty just after Stephen Archer came on, and even though man of the match James Cronin was denied a try when he lost control of the ball on the line, Robin Copeland got over on 50 minutes.
That left just three points in it, which Hanrahan wiped out with a good pressure penalty on 68 minutes. Munster looked in good shape to see it home until O'Callaghan was caught on the ground with just a few minuets left. Ulster could see pretty pictures of a saved season coming into view. Not quite. A place in the Champions Cup though is a good target for them to aim at.
Scorers - Munster: Williams, Scott, Copeland try each; Hanrahan pen, 3 cons. Ulster: Best 2 tries, McCloskey try, McPhillips pen, 3 cons.
Munster: S Fitzgerald; C Nash, S Arnold, D Goggin, D Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams (J Hart 57); J Cronin, M Sherry (capt) (R Marhsall 57), B Scott (S Archer 40), G Grobler, D O'Shea, D O'Callaghan, R Copeland (yc 34-44), C Oliver (J O'Donoghue 47).
Ulster: L Ludik; C Gilroy (T Bowe 69), L Marshall (yc 48-58), S McCloskey (A Curtis HIA 30), 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 23), C Ross, N Timoney (s Henry 72), S Reidy.
Referee: B Whitehouse (Wales).
Sunday Indo Sport