If JJ Hanrahan’s late drop goal effort or his more long-shot last kick of the game penalty had managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat we would have gone home somewhat relieved that the fortress had not been breached for the 2nd home game in a row but far from happy.
While Munster had some cause to feel hard done by in Ravenhill in January where they outscored Ulster by 3 tries to 2 but lost on penalties conceded they did not deserve to win at Thomond. Starting 11 of the players who put it up to Toulon just weeks ago against an Ulster team who, with nothing to gain but bragging rights opted to rest many of their stars with an eye on the semi-final next weekend, we travelled to Thomond fully expecting a comprehensive win. Weather conditions were poor for both sides but Munster failed to adapt and we watched in disbelief as time and again passes went behind the intended target, turning attack into defence as players had to retreat to try to salvage the ball. Handling did not improve with the introduction of the substitutes either so we have to hope for better conditions and a much improved performance in Scotstoun next Friday.
There was good shelter on the terrace. From time to time I had to pull up my hood as the rain blew in but it was not as baltic as it had been for the Treviso game in March. However after the game, when I was chatting to some friends outside the stadium for just ten minutes I was frozen, and glad to get to the shelter of the bus, so it must have been tough on the players and officials out on the pitch exposed to the elements.
There was a heavy shower as Munster emerged and the rain returned from time to time during the game, while a swirling wind was in evidence all evening. In fact the TV screen was only half the normal height due to the strong winds as there was a health and safety risk with the full size screen.
Munster got off to a good start with Casey Laulala making a great break up the centre. He passed to Coughlan, a quick pass by Williams to Gerhard van den Heever set him lose on the west wing but he was dragged into touch just before the try line. Dave Foley stole the lineout from Dan Tuohy and Munster attacked again only to be penalised. The Munster lineout on their own throw was not as reliable as usual, not helped by the wind perhaps but Dave Foley was very impressive all evening, putting pressure on the Ulster throw. The first score came after ten minutes when Keatley had a successful kick from a penalty.
The best score of the night came only minutes later when Munster broke down the east side. Laulala passed to Keatley, onto Williams, then to Downey who passed back inside to Coughlan who as he was tackled got the ball to Duncan Williams who scored. It was great to see so many players running excellent support lines and showing great handling skills. For his reward Williams had to lie on the cold, wet grass to hold the ball steady for Keatley’s successful conversion. 10-0 and all seemed to be going according to expectations. However no one had given the script to Ulster scrum-half Heaney who took advantage of a gap down the same wing to score at the opposite end. The TMO confirmed that there had not been a forward pass and after McKinney converted the score was 10-7.
Former Munster player Nick Williams who has made a great impact in Ulster was prominent throughout the first half. Duncan Williams did very well to tackle him as he broke from the back of a scrum, showing impressive technique given their difference in size! Nick was in trouble shortly after for a tackle on Felix Jones (catching him by the collar as he went past after making a great break.) However later in the first half it was sad to see him having to leave the field in some discomfort on a stretcher after twisting his knee and injuring the medial ligaments which makes his involvement in the knock-out stages highly unlikely.
When Ulster drew level before half time with a penalty kicked by James McKinney and then took the lead early in the second half with another penalty things were looking pretty grim. However a good turnover and a well weighted grubber kick through by Keatley was almost collected by Zebo but Coughlan and Dougall were following up in support and it was Dougall who picked up the ball to touch it down.
The excellent conversion gave Munster a 4 point cushion (17-13) and was Ian Keatley’s last action before being replaced by JJ Hanrahan with just over half an hour to go. Simon Zebo was hobbling a bit after taking a knock on the ankle and was replaced shortly after by Keith Earls. McKinney continued to punish Munster indiscretions with two more successful penalties to put Ulster back in the lead. Munster almost got a third try through Foley and with ten minutes to go opted for a scrum from a penalty rather than taking the 3 points on offer. Full credit to Ulster for holding their nerve and their line intact.
Munster did not give up but handling errors let them down and this was not helped by the deteriorating weather conditions. Sore and tired bodies were being tended to at every break in play. Tempers were frayed and there was an incident in midfield between James Downey and McCloskey which Nigel Owens dealt with during the next break in play. A later incident led to a reversal of a penalty originally awarded against Ulster when James Cronin was penalised for using his feet on a player lying on the wrong side after the whistle had gone. As the clock ticked down JJ’s attempted drop goal went wide and a few more knock on’s gave Ulster a final scrum. All they had to do was secure the ball and clear their lines but a penalty was conceded when #7 Doyle handled the ball in the scrum, giving Munster one last chance. The kick fell short but in the strong wind a penalty effort from half way was optimistic so Ulster went home celebrating a historic double over Munster, giving a confidence boost to their young players.
Prematch: there was a Q&A with Niall Ronan who announced his retirement recently after failing to recover from injury. Thanks to Niall for some great memories during his 7 years with the province. His personal highlight was the All Blacks game in 2008 which was a superb occasion.
Half-time: the minis also had an inter-provincial flavour with Bangor U/11s taking on Charleville.
We checked the half-time scorelines from the other games via Twitter to see if there was any hope of a home semi-final and discovered that Glasgow already had a bonus point against Zebre but Leinster were 5-6 down to Edinburgh which would have seen Glasgow go top of the table and Munster away to Leinster. However Leinster recovered in the second half to reclaim their position at the top of the table.
Munster XV: Felix Jones, Gerhard Van Den Heever, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo (Earls 53); Ian Keatley (Hanrahan 50), Duncan Williams (Murray 59); Dave Kilcoyne (Cronin 60), Damien Varley – Capt, John Ryan; Dave Foley (Holland 77), Paul O’Connell; Paddy Butler, Sean Dougall, James Coughlan (O’Donnell 53). Replacements: Quentin MacDonald, James Cronin, Alan Cotter, Billy Holland, Tommy O’Donnell, Conor Murray, JJ Hanrahan, Keith Earls.
Ulster XV: C Gilroy, D McIlwaine, M Allen, S McCloskey, R Scholes, J McKinney, M Heaney; C Black, R Herring, A Warwick, L Stevenson, D Tuohy (Captain), M McComish, S Doyle, N Williams. Replacements: K McCall, B Ross, A Macklin, N McComb, C Joyce, D Shanahan, R Andrew, P Nelson.
Highlights from Rabodirect channel on YouTube:
Photos this week are my own. On Sunday both Rob Penney and JJ Hanrahan were recipients of awards at the Rabo Pro12 Awards ceremony – Rob was awarded Coach of the Year while JJ picked up the Golden Boot award for his best place kicking stats. Dave Kilcoyne and Casey Laulala were the only Munster representatives in the league Dream team for the season.
A much improved performance is required next Friday to set up an all Irish final. Glasgow are in great form and with home advantage will be favourites. There will be no room for complacency in the battle for silverware. Intensity and focus are required to prevent this season ending on a whimper. So I urge them to not “go gently (into their holidays) but to rage, rage against the dying of the light” or in other words.. stand up and fight!