Ulster not out of top-four contention despite agonising loss to Munster
ULSTER stay fifth in the Guinness PRO12 table with just two games remaining after an agonising defeat to Munster in Thomond Park on Saturday.
Dave O’Callaghan’s try for the home side with 10 minutes to go was crucial, leaving Ulster’s hopes of a top-four finish still hanging in the balance.
The losing bonus point was a consolation, and with top-four rivals Ospreys losing to Cardiff Blues, they remain in contention with two games left.
With European Champions Cup semi-finalists Leinster and Munster already guaranteed home semi-finals, the three-way battle for the two remaining top four places is likely to go right to the wire.
Scarlets leapfrogged Ospreys into third with a hard-fought 21-16 win over Newport-Gwent Dragons.
Ulster, who travel to the Ospreys in two weeks’ time trailing them by just one point, opted to play into a swirling breeze and hit the front from their opening attack, hooker Best barging over from a lineout maul and Jackson converting.
Munster managed to respond within three minutes, Peter O’Mahony’s right-wing break exposing Charles Piutau’s defence and Earls and Lloyd provided timely support, the scrum-half evading two tackles to scramble over the try-line.
Keatley’s well-struck conversion was cancelled out by a Jackson penalty from in front of the posts, but the Ulster fly-half failed to punish a Billy Holland high tackle with his next attempt.
Despite Munster failing foul of referee Marius Mitrea’s whistle, the visitors were thwarted from two attempted mauls and Luke Marshall, who broke dangerously from halfway, was a pass away from putting Ruan Pienaar through.
The men in red bossed the latter stages of the first half, Ulster errors inviting them forward and Keatley’s 36th-minute scrum penalty drew them level. Dave Kilcoyne was just held up soon after.
Munster had nothing to show for some late scrum pressure before the interval, and eager Ulster full-back Jacob Stockdale had a try ruled out for Marshall’s forward pass.
Pienaar’s precise delivery had his captain Andrew Trimble threatening the Munster line, Jackson following up with a successful 52nd-minute penalty for 13-10.
Into the final quarter, Francis Saili’s dancing feet saw him step past Trimble and Jackson and feed Earls who finished with aplomb, rolling over the line with Bleyendaal unable to convert.
Stuart McCloskey made a big impact off Ulster’s bench, his big carry getting them into scoring range and with Saili shooting up out of the line, Marshall broke onto Jackson’s invitingly flat pass to claim a seven-pointer to the right of the posts.
Scannell’s injury-enforced departure meant that reserve hooker Rhys Marshall had to come on, but Munster’s canny knack of winning tight games came to the fore again as they mauled up close before Abrie Griesel’s short pass put fellow replacement O’Callaghan over for the match-winning score, converted by Bleyendaal.
A last-ditch drop-goal attempt from Jackson that would have given Ulster victory was never on target.
Speaking after the game, Luke Marshall voiced the disappointment felt by he and his team-mates.
“There were a lot of questions asked after last week against Cardiff. We didn’t really feel we gave a great account of ourselves and the boys are obviously trying to answer those questions in training and in the game today,” said Marshall.
“And I think we showed a lot of desire and a lot of passion today, and what it really means to play in that jersey and I suppose that’s why it’s so hard to take the loss.”
Benetton Treviso 21 Edinburgh 6, Cardiff Blues 35 Ospreys 17, Connacht 24 Leinster 37, Munster 22 Ulster 20, Newport Gwent D’gons 16 Scarlets 21
THE BATTLE FOR TOP-FOUR
(Remaining fixtures for sides still in contention for the final two top four places)
Scarlets (currently third on 67pts)
April 29: v Connacht (a); May 6: v Ospreys (h)
Ospreys (fourth, 65pts)
April 29: v Ulster (h) May 6: v Scarlets (a)
Ulster (fifth, 64pts)
April 29: v Ospreys (a); May 6: v Leinster (h)