Ulster set up a Heineken Cup semi-final date with Edinburgh after beating Munster 22-16 at Thomond Park in Limerick on Sunday.
Ulster progressed to a Heineken Cup semi-final date with Edinburgh at Aviva Stadium after beating Munster 22-16 at Thomond Park on Sunday.
After racing into a 19-0 lead thanks to a bright start, Ulster were made to sweat in the second-half but ultimately held on for a return to the city where they won their only European title in 1999.
Ian Humphreys endured a nightmare opening as three early tactical kicks from hand were decidedly shaky. Luckily for Ulster though, Ruan Pienaar was having no such trouble from distance off the tee with penalties on five and eleven minutes pushing the visitors into a 6-0 advantage.
Things were about to get a whole lot better for Brian McLaughlin's side too as a virtuoso try from Craig Gilroy saw the left wing bust three tackles before dotting down ten metres to the side of the uprights. It was a score that had an American Football feel to it as Gilroy opted not to use his support runners, who ended up in front of him in the act of scoring. Munster were shell-shocked and looking in real danger of having no way back.
Ulster had won their previous meeting this term with a bonus-point against a weakened Munster side but with all of their Ireland internationals unavailable for that RaboDirect PRO12 clash, it was expected to be a closer game despite Munster entering off a loss.
The 16th man were desperate for something to cling to going into half-time and when a concerted period of pressure was applied on the Ulster line, it looked like they would finally trouble the scorers. But gritty and intelligent defence thwarted the hosts and it was in fact they who would be next on the board when territory returned to the side in white just after the half-hour mark. They took their chance via a Humphreys drop that made the score 19-0.
Was there a way back for the two-time champions? They did have a few moments in that aforementioned passage that would build encouragement while it was clear that Ulster would struggle to keep up their ruthless effort in defence. And so it proved to be as an overlap was finally created on the left wing and Simon Zebo duly cashed in close to the touchline, with Ronan O'Gara adding the conversion. Hope for the Limerick faithful.
19-7 then became 19-10 courtesy of a 40th minute penalty from O'Gara with the final kick of the half from 46 metres out into the teeth of a strong wind. What gave Munster extra hope of continuing their revival after the break would be the fact that Chris Henry was in the sin-bin.
Munster returned looking for territory via the boot of O'Gara as he probed for the corners against the fourteen men. However, they struggled to apply sustained pressure as a lack of ideas meant only three points from a penalty were posted as Henry returned to the action.
What was apparent as O'Gara continued to use his knowledge of every blade of grass at Thomond Park was that the momentum had completely shifted into Munster's hands, with coach Tony McGahan having serious impact to come from the bench should he choose to use it. His first call was to Johne Murphy before Donncha O'Callaghan emerged for Tommy O'Donnell just as Pienaar nailed three critical points from the tee that made it 22-13.
The nine-point advantage did not last long at all though as a minute later O'Gara replied after Stephen Ferris, declared fit after being a worry in midweek, took a Munster player high in contact. It was meat and drink for O'Gara ahead of what was a nerve-wracking finish.
Ulster did have the chance to put the game to bed in minute 74 and 76 when Humphreys struck a drop-goal that shaved the post and then Pienaar missed a penalty from 45 metres. But they managed to hold on and book a semi-final clash with Edinburgh in Dublin.
Man-of-the-match: Shrugging off an injury he picked up against Aironi last week, Stephen Ferris was a rock for Ulster. His work did not dip from Romain Poite's first to last whistle.
Pen: O'Gara 3
Pen: Pienaar 4
Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Denis Hurley, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Mike Sherry, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Damien Varley, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Donncha O'Callaghan, 20 David Wallace, 21 Tomas O'Leary, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Johne Murphy.
Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (capt), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Paddy McAllister, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Willie Faloon, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Nevin Spence, 23 Adam D'Arcy.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: JÃ©rÃ´me Garces (France), Matthieu Raynal (France)
By Adam Kyriacou