Ulster – 19
Munster – 12
Sean McMahon reports from The Kingspan Stadium.
Ulster edged the first interprovincial derby of the festive season as they emerged 19-12 winners against an under-strength Munster side.
Last week, the southern province were criticised for their lack of physicality in their loss to Castres, but they certainly brought a bit of bite to proceedings with an opening 40 minutes which consisted of some thundering tackles and clearouts at the breakdown.
Coming into Friday night’s clash, Dan McFarland’s side were buoyed by back-to-back wins over the Scarlets, and that confidence was evident as Ulster looked to run the ball despite the greasy conditions.
A superb Will Addison break in the first half eventually led to the only try of the opening 40 minutes, as a backtracking Munster side conceded a penalty which Rob Herring ultimately scored from when he peeled off the back of the resulting lineout maul.
Munster got their points through the boot of JJ Hanrahan and Bill Johnston, but it was Robert Baloucoune’s second-half try and a final effort from David Shanahan which secured the win for the northern province.
For all their effort, Munster failed again in the crucial areas of the pitch as they coughed up possession in promising positions. A late penalty from Johnston secured a losing bonus point for Munster which will provide a small bit of comfort for the journey home.
With just a few seconds on the clock, the loud singing of ‘Stand Up For The Ulster Men’ was met with a sudden silence as Robert Baloucoune clattered into Darren Sweetnam in the air as the Munster winger collected Billy Burns’ kick off.
Sweetnam landed awkwardly and after review, referee Sean Gallagher brandished a yellow card which was almost greeted with celebration by the Ulster faithful as the majority in attendance were expecting a far worse outcome.
Munster were starved of possession for most of the time in which they had the man advantage, but they were able to take the lead through JJ Hanrahan after 11 minutes when the Kerryman kicked a penalty to put his side 0-3 up after Stuart McCloskey was penalised for being offside.
Much of the first half was dominated by excellent defensive showings from both sides as they continued to turn over possession, but it was Ulster who struck first when Munster fullback Mike Haley failed to deal with a high-ball.
The former Sale Sharks man spilled the ball under little pressure and this allowed Ulster to regain possession and attack. With many of Munster’s big men filling out the defensive line, Addison spotted a gap and burst through before passing to Dave Shanahan, who came on for John Cooney after 24 minutes.
Shanahan was hauled down by Conor Oliver but a subsequent high-tackle on the next phase allowed Ulster to kick for the corner where Rob Herring touched down off the back of the resulting lineout maul.
Billy Burns landed the tricky touchline conversion to give the northern province a 7-3 lead at the break.
Munster drew first blood in the second half with a Hanrahan penalty after Ulster committed a high tackle offence. This brought it back to a one-point game but it was Ulster who struck the psychological blow less than 10 minutes later.
It was quick turnover possession yet again which yielded an Ulster try. A superb offload from Rory Best allowed James Hume to break through the Munster line and pass to Shanahan. The replacement scrumhalf was lined up by the last Munster defender but he was able to get the ball away to Baloucoune who sprinted clear under the posts.
Bill Johnston was able to get another penalty for Munster to cut the deficit to five points but after Shanahan crossed down the blindside of a lineout maul, it looked like Munster were about to leave Ulster with nothing to show for their efforts.
However, Johnston landed a penalty with the clock in the red to secure the losing bonus point and small bit of festive cheer for Johann van Graan’s side.
Ulster: Louis Ludik (Hume 52′), Henry Speight, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Robert Baloucoune, Billy Burns, John Cooney (Shanahan 24′), Eric O’Sullivan (McCall 55′), Rob Herring (c) (Best 52′), Marty Moore (Kane 56′), Ian Nagle, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy (Timoney 67′), Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee.
Replacements: Rory Best, Kyle McCall, Ross Kane, Clive Ross, Nick Timoney, David Shanahan, Johnny McPhillips, James Hume (McPhillips 65′).
Munster: Mike Haley (Johnston 60′), Darren Sweetnam, Sammy Arnold, Jaco Taute, Alex Wootton, JJ Hanrahan (Daly 63′), Alby Mathewson (Cronin 56′), Jeremy Loughman (Kilcoyne 56′), Kevin O’Byrne (Sherry 68′), Stephen Archer (Parker, Jean Kleyn (Coombes 67′), Darren O’Shea, Fineen Wycherley, Conor Oliver (O’Donnell 55′), Arno Botha.
Replacements: Mike Sherry, Dave Kilcoyne, Ciaran Parker, Gavin Coombes, Tommy O’Donnell, Neil Cronin, Bill Johnston, Shane Daly.