Everyone loves a good panto this time of year, the variety of characters which range from the villain to middle of the road (forgettable character) to the hero captures the imagination of young and old alike. Munster’s festive period could be best described as the classic panto season, a period which has not garnered much joy in the Munster camp with five losses on the bounce ranging from villain and mediocrity displays but culminating in a hard fought win over Ulster at the Kingspan where out-half Ian Keatley (the abandoned outcast and sacrificial lamb) turned into the panto hero finally.
The omens were not good for Munster leading into this contest. Ulster on the back of a fantastic double win over once European aristocrats Toulouse and a hard earned victory over Connacht on St.Stephen’s Day. Munster’s form has being the stuff of nightmares; endeavor and work rate a plenty but little creativity or game management to put pressure on the scoreboard.
Munster started this contest with tempo and work rate with CJ Stander in the heart of all that was good in the early exchanges. The match day conditions made the track slow and ball handling treacherous at times so it was not surprise that Munster decided to go for the posts after ten minutes after sustained pressure on Ulster’s twenty-two. Keatley’s first kick, some Munster fans may have forgiven not to look at the kick but the out-half confidently kicked the penalty to give the visitors a deserved early lead.
The early score awoke Ulster from their slumber and the rest of the half was bossed by the hosts with McCloskey and Marshall at three quarters showing great awareness with several neat offloads and running lines. Pienaar and O’Leary were having a stirring contest at scrum-half and after the South African was pinged for holding on after twenty minutes reacted to Sherry and Saiili, a sign that the South African was not enjoying his afternoon.
To Munster’s credit, their defensive structure held amidst a stern Ulster examination and indeed the visitors could have extended their lead when Rory Scannell made a break from midfield. Ulster stopped the rookie ten meters out but it highlighted Munster’s lack of support for the ball carrier, would have expected at least one of Scannell’s colleagues to be in support to give the player an option to offload. The chance was spurned and eight minutes later, Munster were punished for their inaccuracy in controversial circumstances.
Ulster offside and knock-on not pinged by the match officials before Ludik exposed space in the Munster defense to score. Decisions such as this destroy teams who are struggling for form but Munster were not to be deterred, stemming the early second half Ulster attacks and Keatley assured at ten slotted over a tidy drop-goal effort nearing the end of the third quarter.
As Ulster struggled to assert dominance with several knock ons in promising attacking positions, Munster capitalized with ultimately the go ahead score. Keatley again slotting over from a penalty on sixty-two minutes. Munster were now in front, unfamiliar territory. The lead yet again exposed infuriating mistakes seen during this winless run; cheap penalty concessions, offside which yielded two penalty opportunities.
Paddy Jackson’s first effort from forty-meters had the accuracy but failed just short. His second effort was pushed, realizing that his fifty meter kick needed more power and his accuracy suffered.
The second penalty opportunity was shambolic from a Munster perspective. Amorosino’s shaky full-back cameo completed with a knock-on attempting to keep a Jackson deep kick in play which resulted in van den Heever picking up the ball in an offside position; a phrase of play which drives head coaches potty. The Munster dressing room would have being interesting if Jackson had slotted the late penalty award.
Munster’s tackle count and work rate got them over the line as the weather elements prevented Ulster from letting loose out wide. The positives for Munster was that the team put pride back into jersey. It may not have being pretty but the sum of the parts was enough today to secure a much needed win to relieve the pressure from all concerned with the camp.
Special mention to man of the match Ian Keatley. Keatley’s performance today was admirable considering the abuse and critics (yes, I was one of them on here) he has received in recent weeks. Keatley’s play was stripped down, basic fundamentals were executing well and his kicking both out of hand and on the tee was on point throughout. Keatley deserved his man of the match accolade and with no viable competition for his position, one hopes for Munster that Keatley’s confidence will soar for the rest of the season.
Ulster will look at this game as an opportunity lost. Their recent good run is halted. Munster work rate stifled Ulster for long periods but they still managed to have two kicks late in this game to win the contest. The weather elements conspired as Marshall running lines were sublime at times. Williams was as abrasive as ever from eight. Ulster will bounce back and perhaps it was a nice reality check to receive ahead of European games against Oyonaax and Saracens.
The final words though are for Munster captain CJ Stander, the guy is an utter inspiration. Many a player would have stayed down after that horrendous facial injury but the South African is made of stern stuff and resumed action with a performance full of passion, work rate and integrity. These qualities emanated throughout the Munster ranks and one hopes that CJ Stander receives his recognition with an Ireland 6N cameo next month. CJ Stander, a South African by birth but a Munster man by the Grace of God!