Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
©INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd Conor Murray (Munster) reflects on his side's defeat as Stephen Ferris (Ulster) celebrates.
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Ulster looking serious title contenders but reasons for Munster optimism
Rob Penney’s men had plenty of time to reflect on the missed drop goal chances on the long bus ride home.

SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT, three hours after they had narrowly lost 20-19 to Ulster, the coach carrying the Munster players crossed the warmly-lit Boyne Bridge on the M1.

They were an hour and a half from Belfast at that stage but the thoughts of many of the Munster players were surely on the late action that unfolded at Ravenhill.

With just under five minutes to play, Denis Hurley took a high ball near his left-hand touchline. Andrew Trimble dragged him out of play and there was a 14-man bout of fisticuffs as players wrestled for the ball and offloaded some tension.

The touch judge adjudged Trimble to be overzealous in his collaring of Hurley and Munster had a free kick up the line.

They were soon deep in Ulster territory and the finale was set up for a Ronan O’Gara drop goal.

It never came.

Two generals, no decision

O’Gara was perfectly positioned, in the pocket behind a Munster ruck and 30 metres out, on two occasions but scrum-half Paul Marshall hared onto the scene to cramp his style – knocking the Munster man to the turf, and holding him there, twice.

The visitors knew the drill, however, and with time remaining for one more decent opening they battered forward.

Conor Murray was the general at the Munster rucks but he seemed to be taking his cues from his senior half-back colleague rather than calling the shots.

O’Gara received the ball on three further occasions but was not afforded the space to go for the posts and the game was done.

Munster, having started in pugnacious, attacking fashion and with a second-half sin-bin punishment weathered, faced a long journey home with a solitary (losing bonus) point to show for it.

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New coach Rob Penney refused to cast a downbeat appearance after the final whistle and took the positives out of a game that saw Casey Laulala and Hurley emerge with plenty of credit. He said:

(Ulster) did a good job on Munster at Thomond last year so they would have been preparing for a good battle. I hope that our boys gained a good bit of respect out of their performance tonight.

“There’s things in this group that you can’t coach,” he added, “and that was evident in how hard they were prepared to work for each other.”

Penney will be hoping to get Luke O’Dea, who came off with an ankle sprain in the first half, back in the mix as soon as possible as his brief appearance provided genuine menace down the left wing.

Here to stay

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe, who enjoyed his first away win at Ospreys last weekend, was a satisfied man after he witnessed his side come back from 16-6 down to win by a point.

Nick Williams, Sean Doyle and John Afoa all impressed in a pack that held sway early on, Michael Allen looked lively and Jared Payne was a threat throughout. Anscombe said:

I was very worried in the first half and I was very worried until the last second of the game. I don’t think there was one minute in the 80 minutes that I wasn’t worried.

“But two weeks in a row (now), we know we’ve got character in the side and players who have got something about them.”

Three matches into his Pro12 coaching career and already Anscombe has the measure of his troops. This Ulster team are loving life at the deep end.

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