Munster Rugby qualify for the Pro12 play-offs after a closely contested game against rivals Ulster. With seconds remaining a collective sigh of relief could be heard around Thomond Park when Paddy Jackson’s last-gasp drop goal attempt sailed wide of the mark.
Guinness PRO12 Round 20
The close-fought contest meant that Munster have confirmed a place in this year’s Pro12 play-offs but victory came at a price with injuries to Darren Sweetnam and Rory Scannell. Before the game Munster’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, and Ulster coach Les Kiss appeared to be enjoying a lengthy chat in the centre of the field.
A couple of last minute changes to the programme saw Duncan Williams make way for scrum half Angus Lloyd while Ian Keatley started in place of Tyler Bleyendaal and did well in his first half outing.
Ulster travelled with a strong team with hopes of an away win as Munster focussed on the huge European semi final against Saracens. The Ulstermen needed the win to keep their own semi-final aspirations alive as they are in 5th place, trailing Ospreys by a point.
The game had barely got underway when Darren Sweetnam appeared dazed after colliding with Charles Piutau when chasing Ian Keatley’s kick-off and was taken off for a head injury assessment and replaced by Andrew Conway on the wing.
Ulster were first to the scoreboard in the 4th minute when their maul pushed Munster back from a lineout and Rory Best came in from the back for the touchdown which Paddy Jackson converted to make it 7-0 for the visitors. Munster responded swiftly and three minutes later the scores were level. Peter O’Mahony created the chance with a dummy on Charles Piutau, he passed to Keith Earls who returned the ball and then released former Ulster scrum half Angus Lloyd to cross the whitewash. Ian Keatley nailed the conversion from wide on the left.
Once again the Ulstermen took the lead in the 14th minute when they won a penalty on the edge of the 22 after Francis Saili was blown up for offside which Paddy Jackson easily slotted between the posts. However Jackson missed another penalty attempt six minutes later when Billy Holland was called for a high tackle on Jacob Stockdale.
Munster were enjoying more possession in the second quarter and matched the visitor’s score four minutes before the break when they won a penalty from the scrum and Keatley made no mistake. Approaching the interval Andrew Conway made a terrific run down the wing but was closed down by the Ulster forwards before reaching the line. From the resulting play Dave Kilcoyne was held up on the tryline before the half-time whistle sounded with the score at 10 points each.
After the restart Jacob Stockdale made a fine dash down the wing but luckily for the home side French referee Marius Mitrea had spotted a forward pass and the try was disallowed. Erasmus took the opportunity to strengthen his team for the second half with Bleyendaal returning from injury in place of Keatley and South African Jean Deysel coming on for Jack O’Donoghue. Ten minutes in Rory Best burst through a ruck to rip the ball from Lloyd, for his troubles Best retired with a HIA while Abrie Griesel came on at scrum half for Lloyd.
Ulster went in front again from another Jackson kick in the 52nd minute after Munster were penalised following Andrew Trimble’s attacking run. Superb skills from Francis Saili saw the Kiwi demonstrate some fancy footwork to sidestep tackles from Trimble and Jackson after he received a long pass from Rory Scannell. Saili stepped inside and spotted Keith Earls making a run, the pass was perfect and Earls rotated his body in the tackle to get the touchdown. Tyler Bleyendaal missed the conversion so Munster led by 15-13.
Ulster again proved their mettle by bouncing back this time with Luke Marshall spotting a gap after a number of phases and darting to the line. Jackson converted to put his side 20-15 in front. At this stage Rory Scannell was forced out with an injury making way for Rhys Marshall.
With just ten minutes remaining on the clock Munster clawed their way back. Replacement scrum half Abrie Griesel played a short pass from the back of the maul to Dave O’Callaghan who dived over the match-winning try. This time Bleyendaal was back on target to give Munster a slender lead of 22-20.
With the clock ticking down the northerners piled on the pressure winning a scrum on the Munster 22. Paddy Jackson moved back into the hole as Stuart McCloskey took possession. Ruan Pienaar passed to Jackson under pressure and his drop-goal attempt drifted harmlessly wide. A last minute let-off for the home side!