Munster made inroads into Ulster's lead at the top of the PR012 table after claiming a 24-10 win over the Ulstermen on Saturday.
Munster made inroads into Ulster's lead at the top of the PR012 table after claiming a convincing 24-10 win over the Ulstermen at Thomond Park on Saturday.
Given the plethora of changes, this was always likely to be a difficult game for Ulster.
Considering the fact that the national management had conscripted several key players for a pre-Six Nations training camp, Ulster's decision to rest some personnel appeared a high-risk strategy. Thomond Park is always an arduous destination in any case; the Ulstermen having a fairly dismal record at the venue.
The game began at breakneck speed, with the hosts displaying intent to smash the Ulster defence to pieces. The opening exchanges were played at a breathtaking intensity, with Munster targeting the visitors' set piece in particular.
Indeed it was their scrummaging superiority that produced the opening points of the match. An ascendant Munster scrum on 3 minutes yielded a penalty for the two-time Heineken Cup champions.
Munster continued to dominate in the physicality stakes, but Ulster manfully withstood the opening storm, and responded with some territorial pressure of their own.
Niall O'Connor kept the league leaders pinned in the Munster 22, as the visitors laid siege to the home try line. Ulster were rewarded with a penalty for their efforts on 13 minutes, but O'Connor was off kilter with his kick. The Ulster fly-half did open the visitors' account on 22 minutes, however, to equalise the scoreline at 3-3.
By this stage, the conditions were deteriorating at a rapid rate as the rain came bucketing down in Limerick. Consequently the game became rather error-strewn, with the ball being reduced to the proverbial bar of soap. All things considered, Ulster were coping with the conditions and the changes in personnel remarkably well.
However a fifteen-minute period either side of half-time was to turn the match on its head. The change in fortunes began when Ulster scrum-half Paul Marshall was sin-binned for a reckless boot aimed at Donncha O'Callaghan. Sensing their opportunity, the home pack started to turn the screw.
The resultant penalty saw Munster camped in Ulster's 22. After several infringements, the home team opted for a succession of scrums. Botha exerted massive pressure on Callum Black, and referee Rolland awarded the inevitable penalty try. Keatley added the conversion to make it 10-3 to Munster.
The second half commenced in similar fashion, with 14-man Ulster under the cosh. Zebo extended the advantage on 44 minutes, after a gaping hole emerged in Ulster's midfield defence. When O'Mahony crashed over on 50 minutes, a rout seemed on the cards as the hosts pushed for the bonus point.
In the corresponding fixture in May, Ulster had capitulated and the league leaders would surely have feared a similar outcome. But Mark Anscombe's men are made of considerably sterner stuff. A raft of substitutions galvanised the visitors, infusing them with fresh blood.
Suddenly, it was Munster who were on the back foot. Ulster seemed to have re-discovered their attacking mojo, and made several inroads into Munster territory. Indeed the Munster management felt compelled to introduce old heads, Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer to steady the ship.
Ulster's granite like defence held firm at the other end to deny Munster a much-needed bonus point. Fittingly, it was Ulster who had the final say. Some neat handling saw Ali Birch touch down for a well-deserved consolation.
The impressive Olding converted to make it 24-10. Munster had secured a thoroughly deserved victory. Given the changes that had been imposed on his team, Anscombe will be more than happy with his charges' performance.
Tries: Zebo, O'Mahony, penalty try
Cons: Keatley 2
Yellow Card: Marshall (34 min)
Munster: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Doug Howlett (c), 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Paddy Butler, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damian Varley, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Mike Sherry, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Dave O'Callaghan, 20 James Coughlan, 21 Peter Stringer, 22 Ronan O'Gara, 23 Felix Jones.
Ulster: 15 Adam D'Arcy, 14 Chris Cochrane, 13 Michael Allen, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Niall O'Connor, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Roger Wilson , 7 Mike McCormish, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Neil McComb, 4 Louis Stevenson, 3 Adam Macklin, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Ricky Lutton , 18 Tom Court, 19 Alan O'Connor, 20 Ali Birch, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 Stuart Olding, 23 Ricky Andrew.
by Rory McGimpsey