Ulster were defeated by Munster at a wintry Thomond Park, after a bruising tussle on Saturday evening.
The visiting side had a penalty opportunity early doors after a late Munster tackle; Billy Burns duly obliged with kicking the ball to touch, but the ensuing line-out was judged to be not straight and so the chance went begging.
With the rain starting to teem down, the Ulster pack got involved for their first try of the game. A strong maul with Rob Herring at the back, rumbled over for the hooker to get the plaudits for the score. John Cooney landed the conversion to put Ulster seven ahead with just 10 minutes gone.
The hosts were down to 14 for the remainder of the game after just 14 minutes as Simon Zebo was sent off for a high hit on Mike Lowry. Ulster looked to immediately capitalise with another attacking line-out, but Munster did well to force the turnover 5 metres from their own line.
With a quarter of the game gone, Ulster’s defences were tested as the hosts tried to re-group. The men in white withheld a deluge of attacking pressure on their line and would have felt encouraged for holding firm. Munster had to make do with a penalty from Jack Crowley for their efforts.
A minute from half-time, Munster had another shot at goal and Crowley brought the gap to one point, but there was time after the re-start for the Ulster men to hit back, and Nathan Doak drilled over the penalty to put Ulster four points ahead at the break.
Munster came out of the blocks quickly in the second half, but a Duane Vermeulen turnover put paid to their attack and Ulster regained possession. The visitors had two line-outs in promising areas of the field, but they were unable to get purchase as the Munster pack dealt with them well.
Ulster eventually got another three points on the board after winning a scrum penalty – Nathan Doak notched up the points to extend the lead.
The visiting side went a man down temporarily when Kieran Treadwell was sin-binned for a tip tackle. It proved to be costly as Munster immediately put the ball wide to full-back Mike Haley who went in at the corner. Crowley was unable to land the conversion.
The Ulster men had a chance to stretch their lead in the 70th minute after Jack O’Donoghue made a seatbelt tackle on Mike Lowry, but Doak’s effort fell short of the posts.
The home side took the lead four minutes later. Jack O’Donoghue made the initial charge and after a series of pick-and-goes, Alex Kendellen went over for the try and Ben Healy converted. Ulster were unable to respond in the final couple of minutes and so came away from Thomond Park with the losing bonus point.
Ulster’s attentions now turn to the Heineken Champions Cup and will face Northampton Saints at cinch Stadium next Sunday.
Full-time score: Munster 18 Ulster 13
Tries: Mike Haley, Alex Kendellen
Cons: Ben Healy
Pens: Jack Crowley (2)
Tries: Rob Herring
Cons: John Cooney
Pens: Nathan Doak (2)
(15-9) Mike Haley, Seán French, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Simon Zebo, Jack Crowley, Craig Casey;
(1-8) Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer, Thomas Ahern, Fineen Wycherley, Tadhg Beirne (Capt.), John Hodnett, Gavin Coombes.
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Josh Wycherley, John Ryan, Alex Kendellen, Jack O'Donoghue, Neil Cronin, Ben Healy, Shane Daly.
(15-9) Mike Lowry, Craig Gilroy, Ben Moxham, James Hume, Ethan McIlroy, Billy Burns, John Cooney;
(1-8) Jack McGrath, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor (Capt.), Sam Carter, Greg Jones, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Ross Kane, Kieran Treadwell, Marcus Rea, Nathan Doak, Angus Curtis, Rob Lyttle.
Ulster travel to Northampton on Saturday 16 January in the Heineken Champions Cup, before hosting Clermont in the potentially crucial final pool stage game on Saturday 22 January (5.30pm, Kingspan Stadium).
Tickets are still available for the Clermont fixture at ulster.rugby/buytickets.