Rotation was the name of the game for this interprovincial clash as, with several key players missing due to participation in the Ireland winter training camp, Mark Anscombe made no fewer than 11 changes to the starting XV. Among the backs, Adam D'Arcy made his first appearance of the season at full-back, while Chris Cochrane started on the wing and Michael Allen took over the number 13 shirt, and a new pairing of Paul Marshall and Niall O'Connor occupied the half-back berths. The front row was also all-new, as Callum Black, Rob Herring and Adam Macklin lined up together, in front of a rehabilitated Lewis Stevenson at lock, with Mike McComish and Wilson also coming in at seven and eight respectively.
Ian Keatley dispatched an early penalty from 25 metres after the Ulster front row had pulled up at the scrum, and after a series of handling errors in slippery conditions from both sides in the opening 10 minutes, the visitors settled into the game and had the chance to draw level on 13 minutes when Conor Murray was called offside. O'Connor's contact was poor, however, and the kick spun harmlessly wide of the near post.
Under teeming rain in the second quarter, Damien Varley was pulled up for side entry to the maul, and this time from a more central position the Ulster 10 split the posts to bring his team back to parity on 23 minutes.
Munster then showed good acceleration on the half-hour mark, Murray and Keatley in particular skipping away from several missed tackles to make it to the line, where the Ulster defence partially redeemed itself by holding up the ball-carrier. The five-metre scrum was Munster's, however, and the hosts were able to apply the requisite pressure to force Ulster into the concession of two penalties in quick succession. With the threat of the penalty try looming over the Ulstermen, referee Alain Rolland adjudged the front row to have intentionally collapsed the third consecutive scrum, and awarded the score. Keatley converted to make it Munster 10 Ulster 3.
With Paul Marshall sinbinned on 34 minutes for uncharacteristically kicking out at an opponent in the maul, Ulster could have begun to flounder, but fine collective defence on Munster's very next attack, and strong ball-carrying from Herring and Robbie Diack as Ulster regained possession, ensured that the first period played out in the Southerners' half with no further danger to the Ulster rearguard.
Half-Time Score Munster 10 Ulster 3
However, Ulster's numerical disadvantage was finally exploited four minutes into the second half, as Simon Zebo picked up the ball unopposed on the '22'and darted through a huge gap in the centre of the defence to ground his side's second try. Keatley's conversion compounded the Ulster misery, and although Marshall re-entered the fray immediately afterwards, his team had leaked 14 points in his absence and now faced a huge task to try to regain a foothold in the match.
The challenge soon took on gargantuan proportions as, in the very next Munster onslaught, Peter O'Mahony forcefully charged his way over for the third try in the fiftieth minute, again converted by Keatley. In the hope of injecting some extra vitality into a struggling pack Ulster called upon replacements Tom Court, Niall Annett and Birch just before the hour mark, but the Munstermen continued to dominate well into the final quarter, with Ulster only occasionally threatening, thanks to a couple of penetrating runs from the lively Birch.
Anscombe will be pleased with Ulster's display in the closing 10 minutes, as they finished the stronger of the teams, and several of the young substitutes made a real impact, most notably Birch, Stuart Olding and Michael Heaney. Indeed, the replacement scrum-half was instrumental in Ulster's last-minute consolation try, as he pulled off a sublime blind flicked pass inside to Diack, who supplied the impressive Birch to go over for the score, well converted from a difficult angle by Olding.
Ulster will now hope to get straight back to winning ways on Friday 4th January, with second-placed Scarlets the guests at Ravenhill.
Full-Time Score Munster 24 Ulster 10
(15 - 9) D Hurley; D Howlett (c), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray
(1 - 8) W du Preez, D Varley, BJ Botha, Do O'Callaghan, B Holland, P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, P Butler
Replacements (16 - 23) M Sherry, M Horan, S Archer, Da O'Callaghan, J Coughlan, P Stringer, R O'Gara, F Jones
(15 - 9) A D'Arcy; C Cochrane, M Allen, L Marshall, C Gilroy; N O'Connor, P Marshall
(1 - 8) C Black, R Herring, A Macklin, L Stevenson, N McComb, R Diack, M McComish, R Wilson (c)
Replacements (16 - 23) N Annett, R Lutton, T Court, A O'Connor, A Birch, M Heaney, S Olding, R Andrew
|Munster Rugby Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|