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Munster move top of Pro12 as Ulster miss prime chance to boost play-off hopes

Tries from Keith Earls, Dave O’Callaghan and Angus Lloyd powered the southern province to victory.

Munster 22

Ulster 20

Murray Kinsella reports from Thomond Park 

THE PRO12 IS once again delivering us an absorbing run-in to the play-offs, and Ulster will feel they missed an opportunity in Limerick this afternoon as Rassie Erasmus’ Munster edged to a 22-20 victory.

Dave O’Callaghan scores their third try of the game supported by James Cronin Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With the Ospreys losing to Cardiff Blues today, a win would have moved the Ulstermen into third in the Pro12 table, but Munster had enough to send them back to Belfast in defeat and keep their own momentum rolling a week out from the Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens.

The southern province finished the game with captain Peter O’Mahony on the right wing, and a leg injury to inside centre Rory Scannell makes him a doubt for the Sarries clash, joining scrum-half Conor Murray and number eight CJ Stander in that category.

That said, Stander did share his optimism that he will be fit for the semi-final in a pre-match interview that buoyed the Munster support.

Though the error count was far too high, matters on the pitch were absorbing at times, particularly in the opening and closing quarters, and tries from Keith Earls, scrum-half Angus Lloyd and replacement back row Dave O’Callaghan proved vital for Munster.

Paddy Jackson hit a last-gasp drop goal attempt in a desperate effort to steal the win that Les Kiss’ men craved so dearly, but it dropped short and wide to the delight of the majority of the Thomond Park crowd.

A losing bonus point lifts Ulster to fourth in the Pro12 table temporarily, though they will drop back to fifth if the Scarlets beat the Dragons at Principality Stadium this evening.

Munster, meanwhile, move to the top of the league, but will dip back to second should Leo Cullen’s Leinster overcome Connacht in Galway tonight. The victory over Ulster also brings the prospect of Munster’s home Pro12 semi-final within touching distance.

Paddy Jackson kicks a penalty Paddy Jackson hits an early conversion for Ulster. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There was late disruption to the Munster starting side in Limerick as halfbacks Duncan Williams and Tyler Bleyendaal dropped out, with Angus Lloyd and Ian Keatley taking their places at 9 and 10.

Bleyendaal shifted to the bench after feeling ill, while Williams dropped out altogether with a groin issue, though one suspects he was being protected with Murray remaining doubtful for the Champions Cup semi-final.

Erasmus’ men then lost right wing Darren Sweetnam to concussion in the very first tackle of the match as the Cork man collided with Charles Piutau and looked heavily dazed before swiftly making way for the impactful Andrew Conway.

Ulster had the perfect start with a fourth-minute try, impressive hooker Rory Best the man to ground the ball following a powerful maul from five metres out, with Jackson converting.

Munster rebounded within three minutes, however, as O’Mahony broke down the right-hand side and found man of the match Earls on his inside, before accepting a return pass and then hitting scrum-half Lloyd on his outside shoulder.

Angus Lloyd scores a try despite Sean Reidy Lloyd crosses to score for Munster. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

On loan from Ulster but still eligible to play for Munster, the former Trinity College man finished smartly, allowing Keatley to equalise with his conversion.


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Francis Saili raced up offside to give Jackson a chance to kick Ulster back in front at 10-7, but the Ireland international out-half missed a shot at goal in the 20th minute and the visitors began to make errors after their excellent opening stanza.

Piutau and fullback Jacob Stockdale were guilty of dropping high balls, while Stuart Olding had a poor handling error coming towards half time. Having lost openside Chris Henry to injury in the 28th minute, Ulster saw Munster draw level again with a Keatley penalty after Dave Kilcoyne and John Ryan got busy at scrum time.

And Munster went close to leading for the first time just before the break, when a sharp Rory Scannell pass freed Conway wide on the right and Saili was halted just a metre out after the replacement wing’s offload.

Kilcoyne picked and drove over the tryline but was held up and Munster failed to convert from that close-range set-piece, leaving the game balanced at 10-10 for the interval.

Erasmus sent Bleyendaal in at out-half early in the second half, with replacement scrum-half Abrie Griesel soon following him and Jean Deysel adding ball-carrying bulk to the back row.

Despite their ongoing error count, Ulster pushed in front again as Jackson slotted three points off the tee, soon after Stockdale had had a try chalked off for a forward pass by Luke Marshall while offloading to the long-striding fullback.

Keith Earls scores their second try of the game Man of the match Keith Earls scores. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The quality of the contest dipped notably in the third quarter, in truth, but we had a lively closing 20 minutes as the lead continued to change hands.

Munster struck for an Earls try first, Saili beating Trimble and Jackson before offloading brilliantly to his left wing, who darted inside Stockdale and through Clive Ross to finish.

That score was unconverted meaning that Ulster went 20-15 in front when Jackson added the extras to Luke Marshall’s excellent score three minutes later, after the centre powered in between Saili and Bleyendaal off a clever Jackson pass.

But Munster showed the fighting quality they have demonstrated all season, building to a try for substitute lock Dave O’Callaghan, who dived over after Griesel intelligently put a hint of delay on his short pass from the base of a close-range ruck.

This time, Bleyendaal converted and Munster closed out their 22-20 win, surviving the late drop-goal effort from Jackson.

Munster scorers:

Tries: Angus Lloyd, Keith Earls, Dave O’Callaghan

Conversions: Ian Keatley [1 from 1], Tyler Bleyendaal [1 from 2]

Penalties: Ian Keatley [1 from 1]

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Rory Best, Luke Marshall

Conversions: Paddy Jackson [2 from 2]

Penalties: Paddy Jackson [2 from 3]

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam (Andrew Conway ’2), Francis Saili, Rory Scannell (Rhys Marshall ’67), Keith Earls; Ian Keatley (Tyler Bleyendaal ’44), Angus Lloyd (Abrie Griesel ’51); Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin ’56), Niall Scannell, John Ryan (Stephen Archer ’67); Donnacha Ryan (Dave O’Callaghan ’61), Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (captain), Tommy O’Donnell, Jack O’Donoghue (Jean Deysel ’45).

ULSTER: Jacob Stockdale; Andrew Trimble (captain), Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding (Stuart McCloskey ’51), Charles Piutau (Craig Gilroy ’61); Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Andrew Warwick (Callum Black ’63), Rory Best (Rob Herring ’51), Wiehahn Herbst (Rodney Ah You ’74); Kieran Treadwell, Alan O’Connor; Iain Henderson, Chris Henry (Clive Ross ’28 (Robbie Diack ’70)), Sean Reidy.

Replacement not used: Paul Marshall.

Referee: Marius Mitrea [FIR].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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