On this showing, the chances of going one better than 2002 look highly optimistic. True, Ulster’s prospects of making a real game of it were hampered when prop Justin Fitzpatrick was sent off for punching after just 10 minutes, and Munster quickly took advantage of their numerical advantage by scoring three tries to lead by 28-3 at the interval.
A hot-blooded start to the contest saw the referee issue warnings to both sides, but within a minute several players were trading punches with Fitzpatrick clearly connecting with two blows to Anthony Foley’s face. Because his indiscretion was in clear view of the referee, Fitzpatrick was summarily dismissed. However, Munster were fortunate that Donncha O’Callaghan was only sin-binned for 10 minutes.
Clearly disrupted by the loss of Fitzpatrick, Ulster were then hit by three tries in the space of 15 minutes. International prop John Hayes was the first to barge his way over from close range following an assist by Ronan O’Gara. Alan Quinlan was next to cross when he finished off a move that had involved Peter Stringer, Jason Holland and Foley, and Ulster misery was compounded on the stroke of half-time when wing John Kelly raced through some indifferent defense.
With Stringer and second row Paul O’Connell particularly impressive, it was no surprise when center Mike Mullins killed off the game with his side’s fourth try early in the second half. From then on, Munster could afford to depend on their own outstanding defense with David Humphreys scoring the losers only try.
Appropriately, veteran lock Mick Galwey, who had come on as substitute for O’Connell, rounded off the game with a try that was raucously acclaimed by the 12,000 home supporters. However, there was some bad news for both Munster and Ireland when it was revealed that O’Connell had broken this thumb and would be out of action for up to six weeks.
The highly promising second row will now miss the Celtic League final, Munster’s two remaining pool games in the European Cup as well as Ireland’s opening Six Nations matches against Scotland and Italy.