The tension was palpable as the clock slowly counted down the minutes and then seconds of the game once the penalty had gone between the posts to put Munster into the lead after 60 minutes. The cheer that greeted the missed penalty kick from Paddy Jackson just 3 minutes later was nearly louder as the ball just clipped the bar and dropped short. We began to believe that our luck was turning. Fortune favours the brave they say and Munster showed their mettle, forcing their way back into the Ulster half, time and again.
Ian Keatley put in some beautiful kicks to pin them back and make them play it from their own half as Munster edged the territory battle in the second half (see the ESPN Stats below.) However with just 2 minutes to go Ulster finally got back into the Munster half and to make it worse they got a penalty when Amorosino tried to keep the penalty kick in and fluffed it only for van den Heever to then play the ball offside. Jackson stepped up for another kick. Was he to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? A chance to atone for his earlier miss, it would have been a cruel blow for Munster! He missed it and to add to the drama Keatley then missed touch with his clearance kick to give Ulster one more attacking opportunity. A superb choke tackle on McCloskey was greeted with cheers in the River Bar and applause plus relief as the referee blew the final whistle.
Munster started well, chasing their kick-off and putting Ulster under pressure from the start, winning the turnover and a scrum from that Ulster knock-on. They attacked through 11 phases, probing the Ulster defensive line, hitting rucks to clear out the defenders in a very positive start before BJ Botha knocked on. Then it was Ulster’s turn to have a period of possession before another knock-on.
Jack O’Donoghue stole an Ulster lineout ball to keep the pressure on, and when Nick Williams did not release Ian Keatley looking composed and assured after his week off put the penalty over the bar to give Munster an early lead after 8 minutes.
Ulster setup an exciting attack from a lineout on halfway, Scholes kicked ahead and all O’Leary could do was gather the ball and slide into touch giving Ulster another lineout opportunity deep inside the Munster 22. You could tell that the boys were up for it from their gritty defence of their line and the exchange between Pienaar and Mike Sherry when Jack O’Donoghue won a crucial turn-over almost on the Munster line. The tackling by both sides was so fierce that the ball often popped out and provided plenty of opportunities throughout the game to launch a quick counter-attack.
There was concern when we noticed CJ Stander was still on the ground after play had moved on and when the camera zoomed in we saw all the blood on his face. The replay showed how his nose had hit off Diack’s knee and he was replaced temporarily by Robin Copeland. It takes a lot to stop him and he quickly returned to the action, going on to have the most carries in the game despite his temporary absence!
Rory Scannell made a great break from just inside his own half, scooping up a loose ball and weaving past several Ulster players, as we all roared him on only for Trimble to cut him off as he approached the 5m line. It is a pity he did not go all the way or get the ball to van den Heever steaming up on the outside but it was a superb effort and certainly had our hearts racing.
Ulster continued to test the Munster defence and put them under pressure on their own lineout, claiming possession on the 5m line. We were yelling at the referee who did not pick up the knock-on when the ball had bounced off Pienaar’s foot and been retrieved by Chris Henry who was in the ruck. The referee Gary Conway had been on the far side and his assistant referee did not flag it to him either so instead of Munster winning possession for a scrum Ulster were able to keep possession. Ludik eventually found the gap to score the try which Jackson converted to make it 7-3 after 25 minutes.
Trimble nearly scored on his 200th appearance for Ulster when the ball was turned over in their own half; McCloskey kicked ahead and it was a footrace between Trimble and O’Mahony who did enough to slow down Trimble for the ball to go out over the sideline and the danger was averted.
Munster finished the half strongly, Stander driving for the line but McCloskey put in a crucial choke tackle and the opportunity was lost to leave it 7-3 at half-time.
In truth it was an error strewn performance by both teams but it was encouraging to see that the recent run of losses had not caused Munster to retreat into their shell but instead to come out fighting.
In the opening exchanges of the 2nd half Amorosino and van den Heever combined well to break the gainline. Ulster lost possession of their lineout ball, then a block down of Scannell’s kick ended up in the arms of Ronan O’Mahony and it looked like our luck may be turning for the better! He got the pass to Saili who charged forward and while he was tackled it was another sign that things are coming together.
Another excellent kick for touch by Keatley allowed Munster to put pressure on the Ulster lineout which they did successfully. Wilson knocked on giving Munster the scrum inside the Ulster 22. Stander charged from the base of the scrum, O’Donoghue took it on, but Sherry was held up in yet another choke tackle and Ulster won a scrum. However Munster won it against the head, maybe the fresh legs of Niall Scannell and Copeland helped but that was a crucial turnover. The forwards took it on for a few more phases before getting the ball back to Keatley who backed himself as he stood back in the pocket and executed the drop kick perfectly to make it a 1 point game on 58 minutes. Rory Scannell had been injured in the play leading up to that and had to be replaced by Denis Hurley. Another fine shift by the academy player who signed a contract during the week to upgrade to a development contract next season and a full senior contract from the following season.
Duncan Williams came on for O’Leary to win his 100th cap for Munster. Saili won a penalty which Keatley kicked to touch. From that lineout the pack won another penalty when Ulster came in from the side which Keatley converted to take the lead 7-9 .
Amorosino knocked on to give Ulster a scrum platform to attack from which they won the penalty which fell just short for Jackson. Did Saili knock-on as he gathered the penalty? It was hard to tell if it was knocked forward or backwards and the referee did not stop play. Keatley put in a great clearance kick from behind his goal line.
Another great kick pinned Ulster back with just 8 minutes left and we dared to hope. A knock-on by Williams was cancelled out by his super take of a chip by Jackson. The pack kept going through the phases until Billy Holland was penalised for holding on and that was compounded by Amorosino trying to keep the ball in play only for van den Heever to play the ball from an offside position. Less than 2 minutes remained when Jackson took that penalty kick and it went wide but Keatley’s clearance kick did not find touch giving Ulster one last chance. Munster could not afford to concede another penalty but their defence and discipline held firm and with 6 seconds remaining Saili and co. executed that crucial choke tackle to win the turnover and end the game.
Ulster: Louis Ludik, Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Rory Scholes, Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar: Kyle McCall, Rory Best (Capt), Wiehahn Herbst, Lewis Stevenson, Franco van der Merwe, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Rob Herring (for Williams ’71), Callum Black (for McCall ’64), Ricky Lutton (for Herbst ’35), Alan O’Connor (Stevenson ’53), Roger Wilson (for Diack ’53), Paul Marshall (for Pienaar ’70), Ian Humphreys, Sam Arnold (for Marshall ’54).
Munster: Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino; Gerhard van den Heever, Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Tomás O’Leary; Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, BJ Botha; Billy Holland, Mark Chisholm; Jack O’Donoghue, Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander (Capt).
Replacements: Niall Scannell (for Sherry ’56), John Ryan (for Botha ’70), Mario Sagario, Shane Buckley, Robin Copeland (for O’Donnell ’56), Duncan Williams (for O’Leary ’57), Tyler Bleyendaal, Denis Hurley (for Scannell ’57).
There were a few “visitors” in the River Bar for the game including a father and daughter from Cratloe who took refuge with us while the rest of their family hit the sales. The good intention by some to self-censor comments to be child appropriate went out the window when the action kicked off as there were plenty of thrills and spills by both sides!
Shortly after Munster took the lead in the 2nd half, Bruce asked us to call it, would Munster go on to win? Dee was the brave one who said yes, I was hoping yes but lots of touching wood and finger crossing would be required to see out the tense final quarter!
Also interesting to see the league table
More tough games lie ahead but it is great to halt the losing streak and build a bit of confidence before the trip to Paris. I am not travelling over as I went in November but I will be in Thomond the following week and then travelling to Treviso to finish off the pool stages of the Champions Cup. There is still plenty to work on as the table above shows (our negative points difference stands out) but we have kept the faith with the players over the past few tough weeks and we will keep on encouraging them. Having Tommy O’Donnell back is a major positive as it gives our backrow a much better balance enabling Jack to be very effective at 6 while CJ was outstanding again.
This is OUR team and when they stand up and fight we will cheer and sing and shout our support, be it in front of the television or on the terraces! As the song (My Silver Lining) says we got to “keep on, keeping on”
I wrote last week how much I appreciated some kind comments over the past episodes as I worked hard to find some positives. If you missed it I recommend you check out the comment from ACSkerries which gave me a good laugh! Thank you for keeping the faith with me and my glass half full blog 😊
Late edit to add in this analysis from the 42.ie of the great work by Tommy and Jack in the backrow: http://www.the42.ie/analysis-munster-back-row-odonoghue-odonnell-2530228-Jan2016/