Leinster’s direct style earns Pro12 success
Ulster come up just short in pulsating encounter at the RDS
It was winning time, World champions both, they refused to kick for goal to make it a three point game, instead taking the lineout in Leinster’s 22.
Ulster heavies rumbled into the guts of Leinster’s defence until, finally, Iain Henderson, the young flanker with a long international future ahead of him, was tackled by Brian O’Driscoll.
Shane Jennings capped a brilliant performance by getting over the ball. Leinster penalty. It took a few more phases before the 80 minutes came up and, fittingly, it was O’Driscoll who went into scrumhalf and belted it off the park.
This being their fourth Pro 12 final in succession, they couldn’t stomach another year without the title. Undoubtedly, Ulster will come again. It has long been the case with Leinster that a few players pick up the slack and drive them to victory. Any number of them are capable of doing this.
Kevin McLaughlin was another unsung performer who made some huge plays. Another is Isaac Boss. A journey man to the untrained eye, a stop gap for Ireland and useful physical foil for Eoin Reddan, particularly away to French clubs, he has been outstanding these past few weeks.
Here, the New Zealand born, former Ulster scrumhalf saved a certain try in the early stages after Paddy Jackson blocked Isa Nacewa’s attempted clearance.
He also turned over a vital Ulster attack under his own posts. The visitors had no choice but to come at Leinster with everything, having coughed up 10 points in the opening seven minutes; a cardinal sin in Dublin (regardless of the even spread of supporters on this fine occasion).
The fear today was which of the 12 Lions playing in the Pro 12 and English Premiership final would pull up lame. Sure enough, Kearney felt his hamstring tighten in the warm up and was withdrawn but is expected to be on Tuesday’s flight to Hong Kong.
With Dylan Hartley’s chances of touring Australia in serious trouble, having been red carded for abusing referee Wayne Barnes, as Leicester put his Northampton side to the sword at Twickenham, the focus switched to Rory Best and Richardt Strauss. Best looks in pole position to be called up if Hartley is suspended.
The opening try was awfully soft. Leo Cullen took a lineout five metres out and the maul walked Jennings over. Sexton added the touchline conversion and another penalty when Best was penalised for not releasing Ian Madigan.
Ulster’s response was ferocious, with John Afoa destroying Healy in successive scrums, but all they had to show for this period of dominance was Ruan Pienaar’s 24th minute penalty.
Robbie Diack butchered what looked a certain try after a fine break by Tommy Bowe and cut out pass from Darren Cave. With two backs, Sexton and Conway, in the road all Diack had to do was plough through them but instead he tried to spin over and was held up.
That mattered at the finish. Two more Sexton penalties and one by Pienaar left Leinster in the ascendancy at the interval, leading 16-6. Ulster needed the next score but they were reduced to 14 men and Sexton put Leinster 19-6 up after Diack was sin-binned for going off his feet.
The already raucous Ulster crowd went berserk when Paddy Jackson was collared by Nacewa as he burst into the Leinster 22. Nacewa, in his last ever game, got 10 minutes on the advice of touch judge Peter Fitzgibbon. 14 players each and Pienaar made it 19-9.
Ulster’s tails were up and a clever kick by Pienaar left Madigan in no man’s land. He was belted by Bowe, allowing Pienaar to make it 19-12 from the resulting penalty.
The momentum had completely shifted now, with Pienaar making it a four-point game, despite Cullen’s disgust with referee John Lacey. Every single player needed to contribute.
And they did, Jamie Heaslip eventually muscling over when O’Driscoll was stopped short. The Ulster contingent was not happy with Fitzgibbon, claiming Sexton’s kick down the touchline, leading up to the score, had gone dead.
For a split second it felt like the result was sorted but Ulster’s investment in Pienaar was rewarded once again. The Springbok landed a mammoth penalty from the right touchline on halfway to make it a six point contest entering the final 10 minutes.
Ulster kept coming. Williams rampaged over the gainline only for a clever incursion into the line by Bowe ruined when replacement Mike Allen knocked on.
The drama wasn’t over but Ulster will rue the early try they conceded and the one they failed to take. That’s the difference right now, Leinster rarely leave any scores behind them.
In typical fashion Cullen let Heaslip lift the trophy. It felt like the passing of the leadership mantle.
Scoring sequence – 3 mins: S Jennings try, 5-0; J Sexton conv, 7-0; 7 mins: J Sexton pen, 10-0; 23 mins: R Pienaar pen, 10-3; 28 mins: J Sexton pen, 13-3; 35 mins: R Pienaar pen, 13-6; 39 mins: J Sexton pen, 16-6. Half-time. 44 mins: J Sexton pen, 19-6; 46 mins: R Pienaar pen, 19-9; 50 mins: R Pienaar pen, 19-12; 55 mins: R Pienaar pen, 19-15; 62 mins: J Heaslip try, 24-15; 69 mins: R Pienaar pen, 24-18.
Leinster: I Nacewa; F McFadden, B O’Driscoll, I Madigan, A Conway; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Toner; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: S Cronin for R Strauss (28-40 mins), Q Roux for D Toner (72 mins), J Hagan for M Ross (74 mins), J McGrath for C Healy (76 mins).
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements: I Henderson for R Diack, M Allen for S Olding (both 64 mins), C Black for T Court (72 mins).
Referee: J Lacey (Munster).
Sin Bin: R Diack (Ulster), Isa Nacewa (Leinster)