Ulster's Pro14 play-off hopes over after Thomond Park stalemate with Munster

The northern province had a strong half-time lead but failed to score in the second 40.

Munster 24

Ulster 24

Murray Kinsella reports from Thomond Park

ULSTER’S HOPES OF featuring in the Guinness Pro14 play-offs died at Thomond Park as they failed to secure the bonus-point win they needed to give themselves any hope of a semi-final qualifier next weekend.

Rory Best scores his second try Rory Best scored twice for Ulster but they came up short. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It had looked promising for Jono Gibbes’ side as they scored three tries in the first half to lead 24-14 at the break, but two of those scores came with Robin Copeland in the sin bin, and when Munster were back to 15 men in the second 40 minutes, they roused themselves.

Ulster ended the game on the attack but ultimately their inability to score in the second half was deeply damaging, as their failure to win with a bonus point ensured Edinburgh advance into the qualifier next weekend.

The northern province may have a Champions Cup qualification play-off game to prepare for on the weekend of 17/18/19 May against the Ospreys, but results in the Top 14, Premiership and European competitions could negate the need for that game.

From Munster’s point of view, they had already secured a home semi-final qualifier before this game and rested their entire team from last weekend’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Racing – Sammy Arnold excepted.

The likes of loosehead prop James Cronin and second row Gerbrandt Grobler were excellent for Johann van Graan’s side, who will look at their second-half fightback with some pride.

It was a game full of errors but the work-rate Munster showed to draw level will have lifted the squad after last weekend’s European disappointment in Bordeaux. They can now look ahead to next Saturday’s clash at Thomond Park against Edinburgh with excitement.

Duncan Williams scores the first try Duncan Williams scores Munster's first try. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Duncan Williams scored Munster’s first try in just the second minute, after Copeland grabbed Ulster scrum-half Dave Shanahan’s arm, forcing the ball loose for Williams to dribble ahead from five metres out, gather and dot down for a TMO-confirmed score.

Hanrahan converted but his spill of possession in a big tackle from Sean Reidy gave Ulster the chance to equalise. The visitors worked the loose ball left, where Darren Sweetnam knocked-on in an intercept attempt.

Jacob Stockdale scooped the ball off the deck near the halfway line and burned through the defence. Sweetnam caught him from behind but the Ireland wing offloaded to Stuart McCloskey to finish, with Johnny McPhillips converting for 7-7.

The Ulster out-half pushed his side in front with a penalty shortly after, but Gibbes’ side lost Iain Henderson to a worrying-looking knee injury before Munster responded well through Brian Scott’s try.

It stemmed from Stockdale failing to find touch, Sweetnam darting through on kick return before Munster captain Mike Sherry and prop Cronin – both making their 100th appearances for the province – carried well and Scott barged over, with Hanrahan converting again.

But Copeland’s yellow card for side entry into a strong Ulster maul was costly, as the Ulster pack – already dominant at scrum time – drove over for two close-range maul tries in the six minutes, captain Rory Best scoring both times and McPhillips converting them smartly for a 24-14 lead at half-time.

Rory Best scores a try Rory Best bagged two tries in one game for the first time in his career. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Munster were revived as soon as Copeland returned from the bin early in the second half, however, with their scrum and maul beginning to get parity.

Sweetnam took advantage of the good platform to tear down the right wing, offloading to Calvin Nash, only for Luke Marshall to kill the ball metres from the Ulster tryline and referee Ben Whitehouse sent him to the bin as a result.

Cronin thought he had scored a minute later, only for the TMO review to show he had knocked-on as he attempted to ground, but Copeland wasn’t to be stopped in the 50th minute as he picked and smashed over to the right posts, Hanrahan converting again.

Proceedings became scrappy again after that Munster score, but a bout of handbags sparked by replacement hooker Rhys Marshall and Ulster captain Best lifted the game once again, although it resulted in Munster conceding a penalty for the otherwise superb Gerbrandt Grobler getting involved.

Dave O’Callaghan jackaled over the breakdown to win a 67th-minute penalty that Hanrahan slotted to draw the teams level at 24-24.

Gerbrandt Grobler with Luke Marshall The outstanding Gerbrandt Grobler gets involved in the push-and-shove. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Munster fought hard in their desire to push ahead and Hanrahan hit a drop-goal attempt with 75 minutes gone but didn’t connect well with the ball, which scuttled low and short.

Ulster hadn’t given up yet either and when Copeland went off his feet at ruck time following sustained pressure in the Munster 22, the away side kicked into the right corner.

Their maul had delivered from close-range twice before but this time replacement hooker Rob Herring overthrew and Ulster’s play-off hopes evaporated.

Munster scorers:

Tries: Duncan Williams, Brian Scott, Robin Copeland

Conversions: JJ Hanrahan [3 from 3]

Penalties: JJ Hanrahan [1 from 1]

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Stuart McCloskey, Rory Best [2]

Conversions: Johnny McPhillips [3 from 3]

Penalties: Johnny McPhillips [1 from 1]

MUNSTER: Stephen Fitzgerald; Calvin Nash, Sammy Arnold, Dan Goggin, Darren Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, Duncan Williams (James Hart ’57); James Cronin, Mike Sherry (captain) (Rhys Marshall ’57), Brian Scott (Stephen Archer ‘HT); Gerbrandt Grobler, Darren O’Shea (Jean Kleyn ’47); Dave O’Callaghan, Conor Oliver (Jack O’Donoghue ’47), Robin Copeland (yellow card ’33).

Replacements: Jeremy Loughman, Bill Johnston, Shane Daly.

ULSTER: Louis Ludik; Craig Gilroy (Tommy Bowe ’69), Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey (Angus Curtis ’29), Jacob Stockdale; Johnny McPhillips, Dave Shanahan (Paul Marshall ’45); Callum Black (Andy Warwick ’55), Rory Best (captain) (Rob Herring ’69), Ross Kane (Tom O’Toole ’64); Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (Kieran Treadwell ’23); Clive Ross, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney (Chris Henry ’72).

Referee: Ben Whitehouse [WRU].

Attendance: 16,178.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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