Long-term injuries aside, Ulster lined up at Thomond Park at full strength, with Stephen Ferris pronounced fit to play and Dan Tuohy recalled to partner captain Johann Muller in the second row.
The visitors held their own in the opening exchanges, and took an early lead thanks to a sublime Pienaar penalty from all of 55 metres in the fourth minute. The Munstermen threatened to strike back immediately with an enterprising break from the restart, but the move was short-lived as skipper Paul O'Connell was penalised for going off his feet.
A second kickable penalty presented itself on nine minutes after a Munster offside, and from precisely the same spot as moments before, Pienaar slotted home a superb long-distance kick to double the lead at Munster 0 Ulster 6.
What happened next, on 15 minutes, was perhaps one of the finest tries the Heineken Cup has seen. The move began with Andrew Trimble ploughing through the middle of the park, followed by lightning-quick long-range passing from Pienaar and Stefan Terblanche, eventually finding Craig Gilroy on his left wing. The quicksilver youngster then proceeded to beat five or six men in a matter of seconds, tying the Munster defence in knots as he darted to the line to the disbelief of most of Thomond Park. Pienaar added the extras, and the visitors found themselves with the cushion of a vast lead at Munster 0 Ulster 13.
The scrum-half was at it again on 19 minutes, registering his hat-trick of long-distance penalties, the advent of which seemed to finally spur Munster into life. Ten minutes of intense but fruitless home pressure ensued, and Ulster again showed their ruthless streak on 31 minutes as Humphreys capitalised on a rare phase of possession to kick over a deadly drop goal from well outside the '22'.
The 34th minute saw Munster finally get points on the scoreboard, a well-worked try touched down in the left-hand corner by their own youthful flyer, Simon Zebo, and converted by Ronan O'Gara. The pressure on Ulster began to mount, then, with Chris Henry sinbinned on 36 minutes for handling on the ground, and the men in red had just enough time before the break for O'Gara to slot over a penalty from 45 metres.
Half-Time Score Munster 10 Ulster 19
Munster came out for the second half chasing the game, but Ulster were able to contain them without the concession of any more points until Henry made his reappearance on 46 minutes. However, O'Gara was on hand moments later to tap over a simple penalty from in front of the posts, and Munster menacingly crept a little closer on the scoreboard.
With Ulster starting to flounder, the Munstermen cranked the pressure up a notch further, but firm defence and a good steal from Gilroy on 55 minutes earned them a brief respite. Then, with Munster penalised on the hour for not binding at the scrum, Pienaar stepped up to re-extend the lead to nine points and give his side a little more breathing space at Munster 13 Ulster 22.
This proved short-lived, however, as O'Gara struck right back mere seconds later with a penalty of his own. As the game powered into its closing 10 minutes with Ulster gripping on for their lives, stubborn defence and outstanding tackling from John Afoa and Darren Cave in particular kept the hosts at bay.
Then, showing great opportunism once more, Humphreys took an audacious low drop-goal attempt on 73 minutes, and watched in anguish as it clipped the left-hand upright and bounced out of play. Pienaar came similarly close to sealing the deal two minutes later, but his penalty span just wide and the scores remained static.
With two minutes remaining, an Ulster knock-on at a scrum in the middle of the park handed possession back to Munster, but the white wall held firm, putting in over a dozen crunching tackles before a final knock-on put an end to the 6,400 travelling Ulster fans' ordeal.
Next up, then, will be Edinburgh Rugby on 28 April at the Aviva Stadium, where home country advantage and a great sense of confidence on the back of today's win will surely count in Ulster's favour, and a victory would see the team contest their first European final since the glory days of 1998-99.
Full-Time Score Munster 16 Ulster 22
(15 - 9) F Jones; D Hurley, K Earls, L Mafi, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray
(1 - 8) W du Preez, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O'Connell (c); P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, J Coughlan
Replacements (16 - 23) D Varley, M Horan, S Archer, D O'Callaghan, D Wallace, T O'Leary, I Keatley, J Murphy
(15 - 9) S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (c), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg
Replacements (16 - 23) N Brady, P McAllister, A Macklin, L Stevenson, W Faloon, P Marshall, N Spence, A D'Arcy
|Munster Rugby Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|