|Guinness Pro14: Ulster v Munster|
|Ulster (17) 38|
|Tries: Cooney, Baloucoune, Rea, McCloskey, Stockdale Cons: Cooney 5 Pen: Cooney|
|Munster (10) 17|
|Tries: Daly, Scannell Con: Carbery 2 Pen: Carbery|
Ulster backed up last week’s win over Connacht with an even more impressive five-try victory over Munster.
Having fallen behind to an early Shane Daly try, Ulster responded with scores from John Cooney and Robert Baloucoune.
Matty Rea and the outstanding Stuart McCloskey extended the lead before Jacob Stockdale intercepted a pass to cross for his first try of the season.
Niall Scannell’s late consolation try failed to salvage what was a concerning Munster display.
For Ulster, the bonus point victory concludes what has been a very satisfying festive schedule during which they have collected 11 points and scored 16 tries in three inter-provincial derbies.
Emerging from the busy Christmas fixture list with much reason for optimism is further evidence of the vast improvements within the province since head coach Dan McFarland took over at the helm at the beginning of last season.
Munster have endured a more difficult period but must now pick themselves up before next week’s crucial Champions Cup meeting with Pool Four leaders Racing 92 in Paris.
Ulster form aids personal battles
With the Six Nations less than a month away, the interpro in Belfast was billed as a key fixture in the battle for the starting Ireland jersey in a number of positions.
Most eagerly anticipated was the match-up which pitted long-time first choice Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray against the in-form John Cooney.
Both players made important contributions in the opening scores, with Murray delaying his pass to Joey Carbery long enough to draw the extra defender, which allowed Carbery to send Daly over the line.
Cooney responded with his eighth try of the season eight minutes later, collecting Stockdale’s pass before stepping inside Keith Earls to run in.
Having lost just one of their last eight games, Ulster’s confidence was evident and they did not look back after hitting the front.
With five minutes until the break the hosts made use of an advantage as McCloskey flung the ball wide for Baloucoune to score in the corner.
The interval did little to disrupt Ulster’s momentum with Rea picking a brilliant line to charge over in the 43rd minute.
Rusty Munster lacking spark
With Saracens lurking just one point behind Munster in Pool Four, the Irish province know that a defeat next week in Paris could all but end their Champions Cup quarter-final hopes.
Their showing in Belfast did little to inspire confidence before their showdown with Racing.
In attack the visitors struggled to punch holes in Ulster’s defence and found their time in opposition territory to be limited by a mixture of solid defence and uninspiring play with ball in hand.
Fly-half Carbery was making his first start of the season and head coach Johann van Graan will no doubt hope to see creative improvement in his team as the Ireland international continues to regain his match sharpness.
As Munster struggled on Friday, Ulster continued to enjoy the momentum with McCloskey, himself hoping to force his way into Ireland head coach Andy Farrell’s Six Nations plans, drove over for the bonus point.
On 62 minutes Stockdale picked off Carbery’s pass for his first Ulster try since January 2019, a score met with an almighty roar from the sellout crowd at Kingspan Stadium.
Scannell’s try from a rolling maul rounded off the scoring with the result already beyond doubt.
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Ulster: Addison; Baloucoune, Marshall, McCloskey, Stockdale; Burns, Cooney; McGrath, Herring, Moore; O’Connor, Henderson (capt); Rea, Reidy, Timoney.
Replacements: Andrew, McCall, O’Toole, D O’Connor, Jones, Shanahan, Johnston, Gilroy.
Munster: Daly; Conway, Arnold, R Scannell, Earls; Carbery, Murray; Loughman, N Scannell, Knox; Wycherley, O’Shea; O’Mahony (capt), O’Donoghue, Botha.
Replacements: Barron, Kilcoyne, Ryan, Coombes, O’Sullivan, Cronin, Goggin, Cloete.
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