Ulster blew a ten point lead to draw 24-24 with Munster handing Edinburgh the vital third place finish in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14.
Normally a draw in Thomond Park would be celebrated as an achievement but the mood among Ulster supporters is somewhat glum after missing out on finals rugby for the second consecutive season.
It was not a good start from Ulster as Duncan Williams scored after two minutes. Ulster made a mess at a ruck on their own 5m line allowing the Munster scrum half to score a try. Nevertheless Ulster responded almost immediately. Jacob Stockdale made a break after a knock on from the home side and Stuart McCloskey was on hand to run to capitalize on a two-on-one.
Munster were allowed to pile in over the top and disrupt the Ulster ball with no challenge from the Ulster forwards and on five occasions the home side stole the ball at the Ulster breakdown. The back row of Conor Oliver, Robin Copeland and Dave O’Callaghan had free reign at the breakdown and ultimately prevented Dave Shanahan from providing the quick ball that was required as well as playing a part in the opening try.
As in most games this season, the lineout badly malfunctioned with Ulster only winning 62% of their ball. This is an aspect that Ulster need to improve on in preseason, whether that means completely rewriting the calls or making it more efficient. Munster and Leinster always seem to be able to get the better of Ulster in this facet of the play.
A Johnny McPhillips penalty gave Ulster a three point lead after 16 minutes, however Ulster were struggling to hold onto the ball in this period of the game. Munster scored their second try of the game just before the half hour mark through Brian Scott. Darren Sweetnam broke the Ulster defensive line after fielding a kick on Ulster’s ten metre line. First up tackles are a must, particularly when elusive runners such as Sweetnam are on the opposition.
Ulster responded six minutes later. Robin Copeland was sent to the bin for deliberately taking down a rolling maul giving Ulster a man advantage at the following attempt. The away side made no mistake and Rory Best crossed for his second try of the season.
While Ulster normally have a knack of losing a sin bin period, they scored their second try. On the brink of half time, Rory Best turned down a shot a goal in favour of the corner and he emerged from the bottom of the maul for the second time this evening with the ball.
Munster started the second half with the momentum with Luke Marshall sent to the sin bin for an offence in the red zone. James Cronin dropped the ball over the Ulster line, but after coming back for penalty, Robin Copeland narrowed the gap to three points ten minutes into the second half.
Ulster lost some dynamism with the withdrawal of Stuart McCloskey as they did not have the go forward ball. His replacement, Angus Curtis, is not suited to the style of crashing the ball up and while he hardly got any chance to express himself, the Ireland U20 international acquitted himself well for the 60 minutes that he was on the pitch.
It took Ulster 37 minutes to get into the 22m line in the second half but it was to no avail. They got two bites of the cherry at the end of the game and on one occasion they were shunted back ten yards while a faulty lineout allowed Munster to end the game.
We saw an improvement in Ulster’s back line play in recent matches but this match was a throwback to the games in January and February. On the whole I have been disappointed with Ulster’s attacking game plan this season and, like the lineout, the playbook needs rewritten for next season.