IT’S NOT OFTEN that a side stomps into Munster’s Thomond Park den and proves themselves hungrier than the hosts. Ulster did just that this afternoon and so took a seismic stride towards their first European title in 13 years.
It was a contest which thrilled and absorbed until Munster’s final crushing knock-on with the clock in the red; a titanic battle of wills which stifled the free-flowing rugby frequently produced by both of these sides in the pool stages.
In the end, Ulster simply wanted it most, thriving on the game of inches around the breakdown and anticipating Munster’s every move to shut off attacking channels before the red jerseys could sneak through.
Ulster’s game plan without the ball was blindingly obvious from the first few minutes. They hit the rucks hard and they hit the rucks often, making a constant nuisance of themselves as Munster tried to cobble together attacks. Stephen Ferris was the tormentor-in-chief, stretching arms and legs across Conor Murray to sap momentum and force two knock-ons.
It was no coincidence that as Ulster tired in the second half, their counter-rucking lost some of its sting. But if Munster were able to free the ball from the rucks that little bit quicker after the break, they were stifled once they moved beyond that. Led by their indefatigable captain Johann Muller and his second-row partner Dan Tuohy, Ulster made 159 tackles and missed just 12, a remarkable statistic.
That defensive resilience in the second half may have won Ulster the game, but the damage was done in the opening 20 minutes. By then, they led 19-0, a mountain too big for Munster to climb.
Tony McGahan’s decision to remodel the front row with Wian du Preez and BJ Botha on either side of the scrum paid dividends for the most part, though they suffered an early setback inside three minutes when Tom Court and John Afoa drove through to win a penalty, the first of three monster kicks landed by Ruan Pienaar from inside his own half.
A lack of concentration and needless indiscipline coughed up the other two for Pienaar, mistakes which were all too avoidable and mercilessly punished by a vigilant Romain Poite.
Craig Gilroy’s wondertry in the 16th minute was a sucker-punch, cleverly crafted and finished with devastating brilliance. Andrew Trimble’s drive through the middle sucked in defenders and created space out on the left wing, but questions will be asked of Felix Jones, Simon Zebo and in particular a sluggish Denis Hurley who all tried and failed to make meaningful contact and stop Gilroy’s charge.
It was fitting that Zebo and Lifeimi Mafi combined for Munster’s only try and give hope to thoughts of a famous comeback. Mafi was the standout attacking threat among the Munster backs, always presenting himself as an outlet and providing what few glimpses of creative spark there were. Zebo looked dangerous when given the opportunity, but found himself out-foxed by defenders all too frequently.
Yet for all the deserved plaudits, Brian McLaughlin will need to ponder on the lack of opportunities created by his side before they go out to face Edinburgh in three weeks’ time. Their try aside, they rarely threatened the Munster 22 and would have struggled without Pienaar’s long-range missiles. After a nervy start at out-half, Ian Humphreys grew into the game though he never really orchestrated play when Ulster were in possession.
Still, they took their opportunities when they presented themselves early on and then made Munster fight for every inch needed to pull off another famous Thomond comeback. It wasn’t always pretty, but in the end, it worked.