Kendellen wasn’t even meant to be in the matchday squad but was drafted in after Peter O’Mahony was injured in the warm-up, with Tadhg Beirne taking over the captaincy when he came in to start.
Beirne celebrated his 30th birthday with a superb display and his leadership on the field was key as Munster did not panic as the wheels came off, and regrouped to come with a late surge which made it six wins on the spin at Thomond Park.
Ulster, looking for their first win in Limerick since 2014, got on top early on and Dan McFarland’s men were rewarded for their ambition when they went to the corner with a penalty and after getting the drive on, hooker Rob Herring scored. John Cooney landed the conversion from the left to lead 7-0 after eight minutes.
Zebo was sent off after 15 minutes for a shoulder to the head of Michael Lowry when both he and Jack Crowley tackled the Ulster fullback after chasing a high kick. Initially, referee Mike Adamson indicated there was mitigation that Crowley was also involved in the tackle, but television match official Brian MacNeice urged him to review it and the Scottish referee then brandished a red card.
Munster, with Beirne leading the way, fought back and got a foothold in the game but a 19-phase barrage inside the 22 failed to yield a try and when another sustained surge after a tapped penalty was also repelled, they opted for three points from Jack Crowley seven minutes from the break.
Crowley cut the gap to the minimum before the break with a penalty from 25 metres but Ulster led 10-6 at the break when Nathan Doak, on for the injured Cooney, converted a penalty after Rory Scannell, playing his 150th game for Munster, was pinged for not rolling away.
Ulster were on top in the third quarter and extended their lead when Doak landed a penalty from 45 metres after 56 minutes but they lost replacement lock Kieran Treadwell to a yellow card for a dump tackle on Shane Daly.
Munster made them pay. They went to the left corner and recycled left to right for fullback Haley to score, but Crowley hit the near upright with the touchline conversion and they trailed 13-11 going into the final quarter.
But Munster never gave up and after Jack O’Donoghue made the hard yards, a couple of recycles later Alex Kendellen pounced for the winning score four minutes from time, with Ben Healy adding the extras to ensure Ulster needed a try to save the game. They never looked like getting it in the closing minutes.
Munster: Tries: M Haley, A Kendellen. Con: Healy. Pens: Crowley (2).
Ulster: Try: R Herring. Con: J Cooney. Pens: N Doak (2).
Munster: M Haley; S French, C Farrell, R Scannell, S Zebo; J Crowley, C Casey; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; T Ahern, F Wycherley; T Beirne, J Hodnett, G Coombes.
Replacements: S Daly for French (55 mins), J Wycherley for Kilcoyne (55 mins), D Barron for N Scannell (55 mins), J Ryan for Archer (55 mins), B Healy for Crowley (62 mins), A Kendellen for Hodnett (62 mins), J O’Donoghue for Ahern (65 mins), N Cronin for Casey (72 mins).
Ulster: M Lowry; C Gilroy, B Moxham, J Hume, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, T O’Toole; A O’Connor, S Carter; G Jones, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: N Doak for Cooney (24 mins), A Warwick for McGrath (45 mins), K Treadwell for Carter (45 mins), A Curtis for Hume (63 mins), M Rea for Jones (63 mins), R Lyttle for Gilroy (77 mins), J Andrew for Herring (77 mins), R Kane for O’Toole (77 mins).
Referee: M Adamson (Scotland).