Conway try decisive in Munster’s 22-16 win over Ulster

Munster Rugby were 22-16 victors over Ulster Rugby in a closely-fought Guinness Pro14 Interprovincial game before 14,436 hardy souls who braved the cold evening at Thomond Park on Saturday.

Johann van Graan’s men claimed three tries to their opposition’s single five-pointer, but the result of this game was in the balance until an Andrew Conway try in the 65th minute decided this game, and gave the southern province their 5th win in six games in this season’s Guinness Pro14.

In an opening half which saw the hosts score two tries, it was Ulster that started the livelier of the sides and won a penalty in the opening three minutes of the game, allowing John Cooney dissect the posts for an early advantage for the visitors.

Munster got on the scoresheet through CJ Stander, who was making his first appearance since the Rugby World Cup in Japan, after 15 minutes. Alby Mathewson broke from a scrum before Billy Holland took possession and quickly offloaded to South African-born Stander who crashed over the line, directly under the posts. The easy conversion for JJ Hanrahan saw the Kerry native push the home side into a 7-3 lead.

With Munster failing to roll away in the 20th minute, referee Frank Murphy awarded the Ulstermen their second kickable penalty attempt of the evening. John Cooney, on an incredible sequence of successful kicks, narrowed the difference between the teams to a solitary point, before a Hanrahan penalty kick on 26 minutes gave the hosts a 10-6 advantage.

Hanrahan’s role in this game was, unfortunately, soon to end, however. He made a break minutes later, causing some anxious moments for the Ulster defensive effort. The Munster No. 10 was tackled by fullback Matt Fades, leaving him on the ground in need of medical assistance. Though a television replay seemed to show contact with the head, neither the referee nor TMO had a concern with the tackle. Hanrahan, unable to continue, was immediately replaced by Tyler Bleyendaal.

Munster soon went through the phases and sucked the Ulster defenders in, before an exquisite pass from replacement Bleyendaal lead to Rory Scannell eventually touching down for Johann van Graan’s side. New Zealander Bleyendaal failed to convert the try as his effort hit the upright, leaving the men in red in a 15-6 lead at half-time.

Half-time: Munster Rugby 15 Ulster Rugby 6.

Ulster, who had dominated possession in the early minutes of the second period, were rewarded in the 50th minute when Rob Herring touched down for a five-pointer. The visitors won their own line-out, and the Ulster prop found a gap from the back of the maul, before bursting for the line. The consistent John Cooney converted to narrow the gap to just two points, Munster 15 Ulster 13.

Cooney brought his side’s second-half scoring haul to 10 points when kicking his third penalty of the game in the 58th minute. The score put his team back into the lead, for the first time since the opening stages of the first half.

The Ulster kicker had an opportunity soon afterwards to increase the advantage as Gavin Coombes failed to release. Cooney took the long-range penalty attempt, but on this occasion his effort was short of the posts.

The deciding score of this encounter came when Andrew Conway ran at pace onto the ball, gratefully receiving a pass from Bleyendaal before scything through the Ulster side, in typical Conway fashion, as the Dubliner claimed Munster’s third try of the game. A straightforward conversion kick for Bleyendaal saw the home side move into a 22-16 lead, to put an end to Ulster’s successful run of scores in the second half.

Ulster had a late opportunity when intercepting a Munster pass, only to knock on and give the former two-time European Champions possession of the ball, which they would ultimately maintain for most of the remaining minutes of this encounter.

Concerns for Johann van Graan going forward have to be the fact that his team conceded 12 penalties in the game, as opposed to only five for the Ulstermen, coupled with the Hanrahan injury.

Munster travel to Liberty Stadium in Wales next Saturday for their opening European Champions Cup game of the season against Ospreys, while Ulster are at The Recreation Ground next weekend to face Bath.