Ferris, then, was the centre of attention pre-match, lining up for his first start of the season, as well as his 100th cap in the colours of his province. However, Mark Anscombe also made six other significant changes from the personnel who had triumphed by three points in Swansea last Saturday, with an entirely new front row and half-back partnership. Tom Court, Nigel Brady and John Afoa came in from one to three, displacing Callum Black, Rob Herring and Declan Fitzpatrick, while Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson returned at 9 and 10 respectively, preferred to Michael Heaney and Niall O'Connor. Finally, Andrew Trimble got the nod over Craig Gilroy on the right wing.
Ian Keatley put Munster ahead inside two minutes with a neatly-dispatched penalty after Ulster had failed to release the ball in the tackle under pressure deep in their own half, and with a similar infringement five minutes later, he struck again to double the lead. With Munster maintaining good pressure from the restart, solid Ulster defence kept several raids at bay, and Keatley settled for the drop goal, which he executed with aplomb on 12 minutes to make it Ulster 0 Munster 9 already in what seemed like a heartbeat.
Jackson clawed three points back with the boot on 15, and good opportunism from the alert Nick Williams as the ball rolled loose from the scrum moments later put Ulster back in the driving seat. A scintillating burst down the right flank from Payne took out five or six comers, and only a tap-tackle on the flying full-back, then a last-gasp lunge at the next recipient, Trimble, mere metres from the line prevented the most spectacular of tries.
A quickly-taken lineout on 25 minutes saw Payne surge down the right flank once more, but when eventually grounded on the Munster '22', there were no white shirts in immediate attendance to pick up the ball he made available. Munster knocked on in the ensuing mêlée, however, and with the visitors collapsing the scrum before Paul Marshall had the chance to put in, Jackson gratefully stepped up for his second kick from the '22'. His effort rebounded off the left-hand upright, but Ulster rapidly regained possession and kept knocking on the Southerners' door.
After a trio of attacks were blighted by knock-ons in high-impact tackles, Munster infringed in the middle of the park, and Jackson closed the gap to three points. The visitors wasted no time in re-extending it though, with replacement winger Keith Earls finishing off a fluid collective try which the Ulster defence simply could not keep up with. Keatley added the extras to make it Ulster 6 Munster 16.
With two minutes to play before the break, it was imperative that Ulster retrieve something to build on in the second half, and a further penalty on the stroke of half-time allowed Jackson to put his side within a converted try of the Munstermen.
Half-Time Score Ulster 9 Munster 16
Good ball-carrying from Williams against his former employers got Ulster off to a promising start to the second half, and Jackson was again on hand on 43 minutes to clip over his fourth penalty of the evening, this time from just inside the 10-metre line. The Munster reaction was again commendable, with lightning-fast exchanges bringing them straight back into the danger zone before their wide men eventually strayed just out of play near the right-hand corner flag.
Then, when Afoa pilfered the ball at a malfunctioning Munster lineout on 50 minutes, Ulster displayed the perfect blend of commitment and composure to recycle and spread play through several phases, before Jackson picked out Payne on the wing, and the Kiwi - playing easily his best game in an Ulster shirt to date - powered through a tandem of tackles to ground in the corner. The conversion missed by inches, but the hosts led for the first time in the encounter, at Ulster 17 Munster 16.
Relentless Ulster came again straight from the off, with the just-introduced Gilroy somehow withstanding a bone-crunching challenge to stay on his feet and shimmy towards the line. The attack finally broke down, but it was a clear statement of intent from the Ulstermen, whose performance was proving increasingly polished as the game progressed, and whose chances of victory were aided further by the sin-binning of Munster flanker Sean Dougall just before the hour mark.
However, you write Munster off at your peril, as Keatley proved on 65 minutes with another opportunistic drop goal to redress the balance back in his side's favour. The lead endured for only a matter of seconds, though, as indiscipline at the scrum allowed Jackson to kick three further points for Ulster 20 Munster 19.
It was evident that the next flash of brilliance would prove decisive, and it came from Ulster - not in the form of a blistering breakaway with ball in hand, but rather through their sublime defensive organisation in the final five minutes of the encounter, as Munster threw everything they had at them, and Ulster resisted with steel and determination until the final whistle.
Full-Time Score Ulster 20 Munster 19
(15 - 9) J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen; P Jackson, P Marshall
(1 - 8) T Court, N Brady, J Afoa, J Muller (c), L Stevenson, S Ferris, S Doyle, N Williams
Replacements (16 - 23) R Herring, C Black, A Macklin, N McComb, M McComish, M Heaney, P Nelson, C Gilroy
(15 - 9) D Hurley; D Howlett (c), C Laulala, J Downey, L O'Dea; I Keatley, D Williams
(1 - 8) D Kilcoyne, D Varley, BJ Botha, D O'Callaghan, B Holland, D O'Callaghan, S Dougall, J Coughlan
Replacements (16 - 23) M Sherry, M Horan, S Archer, D Foley, T O'Donnell, C Murray, R O'Gara, K Earls
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Munster Rugby Score Card|