Ulster's dominant scrum paves the way for sweet victory over Leinster
Ulster 27 Leinster 19:It was always likely that Ulster were going to be more motivated and inspired by a raucous Ravenhill than a comparatively skeletal and slightly toothless Leinster. And with a dominant scrum, which yielded 13 points, so Ulster recorded only their second win in the last 18 meetings and sixth in the last 32 dating back to 1995.
The net effect was to cement their place atop the Rabo Direct Pro12 table and open up a 16-point buffer over Leinster, who will be without all their Irish front-liners for next Saturday’s visit of Connacht, in addition to their expanding injury list. Suffering their third successive defeat and nursing something of a Euro hangover from their beatings by Clermont, they occasionally went through the phases but rarely create a one-on-one for Andrew Conway or any of the other backs until manufacturing a late try.
Afterwards, Joe Schmidt revealed that Eoin O’Malley and Dave Kearney suffered soft tissue injuries in training last Wednesday, but despite Brian O’Driscoll’s doubts to the contrary, the Leinster management haven’t given up hope on him making it back for the last two Euro pool games, while Rob Kearney might return in a fortnight against Edinburgh.
“It would be nice to get back some of our experienced guys just to give us a sense of calm out there as well,” said Schmidt, who conceded Ulster deserved to win, though he felt his side merited a bonus point. Schmidt admitted that his uncapped and unused 18-year-old replacement, Adam Byrne, thought his call from the coach on Thursday was a prank, and that confidence had been affected by these challenging times.
“Certainly we had some good support again tonight. It hasn’t been a great three weeks for us but I’d ask them for a bit of patience and not to jump ship yet. I still think we’re a good side. I think we can dig ourselves out of a hole. That’s what we’re going to roll our sleeves up and do after Christmas hopefully.”
Mark Anscombe was proud of his team’s performance, even if their initial kicking game was poor. “It’s not often we beat Leinster and it’s something we feel good about. Our scrum was outstanding but I think we were a bit tentative in the first 20-25 minutes. We looked as though we didn’t quite believe in ourselves against them but as time progressed we just built a little self-belief, things started to happen and I think we controlled the game in the end.”
Ironically, the game began with a scrum penalty for Leinster, which enabled Ian Madigan to open the scoring, and doubled the lead, while either side of this Paddy Jackson missed what ought to have been a couple of fairly routine 25-metre penalties.
However, with Tom Court and John Afoa piling on the pressure, he and Ruan Pienaar, who oozed class, rewarded huge scrums to level matters, the latter from 45 metres. After Madigan briefly put Leinster back in front, the Ravenhill crowd were brought vibrantly to life when Williams swatted aside Leo Cullen – the night’s pantomime villain for his dialogue with the referee – on one of his trademark, head-bobbing rumbles, and when Ulster went wide off the recycle, Jackson chipped through and McFadden had to concede a five-metre scrum. There wasn’t much surprise as to what happened next, merely that George Clancy needed only one Ulster shove and Leinster collapse to go between the posts.
Although Ian Madigan rewarded another bout of recycling to tap over his fourth penalty within two minutes of the resumption, soon Andrew Trimble, as is his wont, picked off a risky flat pass by D’Arcy and from the ensuing close-in rumbles, Williams twisted and burrowed over for Pienaar to convert again.
Leinster reshuffled their pack, changing both props and Tom Denton for Leo Cullen, with Devin Toner switching across to the loosehead side of the secondrow, but the Ulster scrum forced them to cave in again, although Pienaar missed the penalty from wide out.
There was a potential reprieve for Leinster when Rory Best was binned for not rolling away, more the product of repeated breakdown offences, but Madigan pulled his 25-metre penalty. Instead, Ulster went down the pitch and scored, the maul and a Chris Henry carry setting up the platform for Pienaar, having seamlessly switched to outhalf with the introduction of Paul Marshall, to cross-kick for Trimble to catch and score as Andrew Goodman, on at fullback for the first time in his career in place of the injured Noel Reid, and Fergus McFadden over-ran the ball.
Leinster responded with their best rugby of the night, a strong carry under the posts by Heaslip creating the overlap from which Madigan put McFadden over with a skip pass. Madigan converted, it was scant consolation.