Ulster pulled off a morale-boosting away 17-15 victory over Munster to take into the PRO12 playoffs at Thomond Park on Saturday.
Tries from Duncan Williams and Sean Dougall put the hosts into the box seat for much of the game, but a tenacious Ulster responded with a fine try from Michael Heaney, coupled with an imperious kicking performance from fly-half James McKinney.
The contest was level at the interval, but this young Ulster team showed terrific composure and discipline to edge out their provincial rivals, thereby securing their first league win at the Limerick fortress since 2009.
As befitting their desire to secure a home semi-final, it was Munster that made the superior start, with Casey Laulala cutting the Ulster defence to shreds in the first couple of minutes. The intensity of the hosts was tangible, and betrayed an intention to do everything in their power to secure a home draw.
The conditions certainly weren't conducive to running rugby, but the game was nevertheless a decent contest for possession in the opening minutes. But a depleted Ulster withstood the opening pressure very well it has to be said, and made some territorial inroads of their own into the Munster half. The spectacle was undermined by the inclement conditions, and both sides therefore found retaining possession fairly problematic.
But the hosts were starting to dominate the battle at the breakdown, and it was this forward ascendancy that yielded a 10 minute penalty. Fly-half Ian Keatley made no mistake with the kick to give his side a 3-0 lead. And the hosts consolidated their grip on the contest on 14 minutes when some neat interplay involving Duncan Williams and James Coughlan saw the Munster scrum-half put away for the opening try of the evening. Keatley nailed the ensuing conversion to make it 10-0.
But the visitors hit back immediately when they stormed into the Munster half, and a powerful break by Heaney on the 17 minute mark saw him feed Michael Allen, who then passed back inside for his scrum-half to gallop over and score. McKinney converted to narrow the gap to 10-7.
For all the power play exhibited by Munster's big forwards like Coughlan and O'Connell, the hosts found themselves frustrated by Ulster's sheer doggedness. Given the multitude of changes in both teams, the lack of continuity was perhaps understandable. The visitors got on the scoreboard again on 35 minutes when McKinney slotted another penalty to restore parity at 10-10.
As the match approached half time, it was certainly wasn't going according to plan from a Munster perspective. Indeed by the end of a scrappy and dour half, it was undoubtedly the visitors who would have been happier with the scoreline.
The second half continued in a similar vein, with both sides struggling to achieve much fluidity in their game. McKinney gave Ulster an unlikely lead on 41 minutes with a superbly struck long-range effort. But the visitors failed to control the subsequent restart, and frustratingly lost possession in the Munster 22.
With his team back in control, Keatley put through a speculative kick that the Ulster defence was unable to gather; at which point Dougall leapt on the loose ball to touch down. Keatley added the extra points to make it 17-13 to the Limerick-based side. But McKinney cut the lead to one point on 53 minutes when he landed another penalty for the Ulstermen.
In the context of the injuries and changes in personnel afflicting the visitors, their performance was indeed quite impressive. And McKinney regained his team's lead on 64 minutes when he nailed another penalty, making it 17-19 to the northern province.
The inexperienced Ulster line-up was certainly putting in a sterling performance, with their young starlets putting their hands up for inclusion in the play-offs. Munster battered away at the Ulster defence in the final minutes in a frantic attempt to regain the initiative, but time and again were repelled by the resilient visitors' rearguard .
The hosts threw everything at Ulster in a desperate attempt to secure the win, but just couldn't navigate a way through. JJ Hanrahan had a last gap chance with a penalty from the half way line on 80 minutes, following poor indiscipline from openside Sean Doyle, but the kick fell short. Both teams may be safely through to away semi-finals, but it is under-strength Ulster that will be ecstatic with this unexpected, yet thoroughly deserved win.
For Munster: Tries: Williams, Dougall
Cons: Keatley 2
For Ulster: Try: Heaney
Pens: McKinney 3
Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Duncan Williams, 8 James Coughlan. 7 Sean Dougall, 6 Paddy Butler, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Dave Foley, 3 John Ryan, 2 Damien Varley (c), 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 James Cronin, 18 Alan Cotter, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Conor Murray, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Keith Earls
Ulster: 15 Craig Gilroy, 14 David McIlwaine, 13 Michael Allen, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Rory Scholes, 10 James McKinney, 9 Michael Heaney, 8 Nick Williams; 7 Sean Doyle, 6 Mike McComish, 5 Dan Tuohy (Captain), 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Andrew Warwick, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Kyle McCall, 17 Bronson Ross, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Neil McComb, 20 Conor Joyce, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Ricky Andrew, 23 Peter Nelson.
By Rory McGimpsey