Munster ended a nightmare run of form with a priceless 9-7 victory over Ulster at Kingspan Stadium in their PRO12 derby on Saturday.
Irish fly-half Ian Keatley – much maligned in recent weeks – was the standout performer for the men in red, bagging two penalties and a drop goal in a commanding, composed display.
This was a vastly improved Munster effort, full of endeavour and forward grit, and although the performance was lacking in finesse, this victory was just what the visitors needed to arrest their recent poor run of form.
Ulster started the better, decimating the gain line with a powerful first half performance. It was no surprise, therefore, when Louis Ludik put the hosts into a deserved 7-3 lead, cancelling out Keatley's early penalty, with his try converted by fly-half Paddy Jackson.
Ulster would have been concerned by their inability to make more of their dominance in the first half, however, and their fears were confirmed as the visitors, with Keatley expertly pulling the strings, strangled the life out of them with a superb forward assault.
Munster dominated the early exchanges, going against type by spreading the ball wide. They were a tad too lateral, though, and the Ulster defence was more than up to the task.
However, it was Keatley who was gifted the first chance at points on eight minutes, and the fly-half gratefully curled over a penalty to give the Limerick side a 3-0 lead.
Temperatures were rising in this Irish derby, as seen by a nudge on Pienaar that saw the scrum-half express his frustration at compatriot CJ Stander.
Munster seemed to have breached the hosts' defensive wall on 18 minutes when centre Rory Scannell burst through a gaping hole, but Andrew Trimble got back to put in a fine covering tackle.
Gradually, Ulster were getting on top, with their big loose forwards bashing the Munster defence. Wave after wave of Ulster attack came charging at the visitors' rear guard and Munster did well to hold them out initially.
The gaps were fast appearing, though, resulting in Ludik nipping over in the left hand corner. The hosts had gone through several phases, before Pienaar found his full-back who had run a lovely line for his try. Jackson converted to give Ulster a 7-3 lead.
Munster's tackling and defensive organisation was excellent, but the home side had the upper hand in terms of creativity. As hard as Munster were trying, Ulster were markedly better at getting over the gain line. At half-time, the visitors were still well in
the game, but Ulster were tentatively gaining dominance.
Munster started the second half with some work to do, then, and they weren't helped by Mike Sherry having a few wobbles in the lineout. The visitors had plenty of ball at the beginning of the second period, but still they struggled to penetrate Ulster's defensive line.
But there's more than one way to skin a cat and with space limited in a Munster attack, Keatley dropped back into the pocket to drop a sweet goal on 57 minutes, making it a one point ball game at 7-6.
The shift in momentum continued on 60 minutes when another Keatley penalty edged his side into a 9-7 lead, after replacement Ulster lock Alan O'Connor was penalised for entering a maul from the side.
It was now game on, but Munster let the hosts off the hook three minutes later when BJ Botha was penalised for dropping a scrum. Jackson's penalty fell just short, though.
The tide had certainly turned from the first half. Ulster still had plenty of ball, but the Ravenhill men looked tired in attack, and the visitors kept them pinned back through Keatley's boot.
Heroic in all this was the Munster pack, with Stander and Tommy O'Donnell simply outstanding at the breakdown. For all that, the score was too close for comfort and Munster had an almighty fright when Jackson was afforded another penalty attempt on 78 minutes. His kick fell well short, though, allowing the southern province to hold on for a vital and deserved win.
Pen: Keatley 2
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Rory Scholes, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Kyle McCall.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Alan O'Connor, 20 Roger Wilson, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Sammy Arnold.
Munster: 15 Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Francis Saili, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Ronan O'Mahony, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Tomás O'Leary, 8 CJ Stander (c), 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Jack O'Donoghue, 5 Mark Chisholm, 4 Billy Holland, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Mike Sherry, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 John Ryan, 18 Mario Sagario, 19 Shane Buckley, 20 Robin Copeland, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 Tyler Bleyendaal, 23 Denis Hurley.
Referee: Gary Conway (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Sean Gallagher (Ireland), Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
TMO: Alan Rogan (Ireland)
by Rory McGimpsey