Ulster 13 Leinster 20
The odds were always against Ulster beating Leinster for a third time in a row. In truth, the odds would be against anybody doing so. For the guts of an hour, Leinster subdued both home team and crowd alike through their pack’s power and all-round accuracy and game management, before Ulster roused themselves in a final quarter turnaround which at least salvaged them a bonus point and some pride.
Ultimately, such was the fervour of Ulster’s comeback that the result came down to a matter of inches, with Leinster hugely indebted to a last-ditch tackle by half-time substitute Charlie Ngatai.
Although it had been a pleasant and sunny drive north, the rain returned before kick-off and bucketed down early in the second quarter, which undoubtedly favoured Leinster more than Ulster, who like to play a high tempo, quick recycling game. The rain also becalmed a large, if not capacity, Kingspan until that final quarter, although Leinster had already managed that even before the heavens opened.
A couple of gallops by Nick Timoney and Rob Herring, along with Ulster retrieving three of their first four high balls, did give their supporters encouragement initially but when Rob Herring came on an outside in line from John Cooney’s short ball he was unceremoniously emptied by Jason Jenkins and spilled the ball. Jenkins removal for the last quarter certainly contributed to the shift in power up front. Ultimately though, their pack regrouped and held firm, with another man of the match performance by Dan Sheehan.
The Leinster pack drew a further line in the sand when the Ulster scrum disintegrated, and off the ensuing penalty up the line there were carries by Robbie Henshaw, Sheehan and Jenkins. Aaron Sexton did make a good read when coming off his wing but Leinster recycled quickly and went left again, where Garry Ringrose tipped on Ross Byrne’s pass for Dave Kearney to give Ryan Baird a run-in by the corner flag after slipping through the tackle of Cooney, who was the last man. Byrne, oozing composure, converted from the touchline and, what’s more, Rob Herring went off injured.
Ulster had some more joy from another high kick when a couple of Leinster players blocked the chase and they went to the corner. The drive made some inroads, as did some pick-and-jams, but Marcus Rea was held up over the line. Soon after, Cooney settled for the three points.
Back came Leinster, abetted by Sexton’s ill-advised quick throw to Jacob Stockdale, who was engulfed and pinged for holding on. Sheehan hit Jack Conan and the drive rumbled forward for the hooker to back himself on the short side for his 21st try in 31 Leinster appearances.
Cue the downpour. The crowd briefly came to life when Luke Marshall hoofed turnover ball downfield for a hungry chase. But Lowry’s second knock-on relieved the pressure and when Matty Rea went off his feet after a great take by Henshaw, Byrne made it 17-3 at the break.
After Dave Kearney and Jacob Stockdale were replaced during the interval, the latter having seemingly twisted his standing right ankle in the act of punting, Byrne added another penalty for offside.
Jordan Larmour tracked and tackled Sexton before bouncing up and winning a penalty in the jackal. Surprisingly though, the maul having earned one penalty and their dominant scrum another, Leinster’s first lineout drive was held up before Sheehan’s throw was crooked.
As the rain relented, suddenly the whole tenor of the night changed, and whether coincidentally or not, this followed the departure of Jenkins as James Ryan made his seasonal return. Ulster’s pack began rumbling and generating a flow of penalties, before John Andrew was driven over for their opening try, which Cooney converted.
Finally, Stuart McCloskey had his first big carry of the night when breaking Baird’s tackle and after Jimmy O’Brien hauled him down, the Leinster full-back was binned for playing the ball on the deck.
Leinster brought on Johnny Sexton among others on what could well be his final appearance here, but the tide had turned, and Ulster cleverly made their extra man tell, or so it seemed. McCloskey pulled the ball behind Marshall’s decoy run, and good hands by Billy Burns and Lowry enabled Sexton to apparently finish in the corner. But on video review, Ngatai’s covering tackled had dislodged the ball from Sexton’s grasp before the grounding, so keeping the score at 20-10 rather than 20-17.
Instead, Ulster soon had to again settle for a penalty by Cooney from 45 minutes, thus making the draw an option, although he was then surprisingly replaced.
Ulster went up the line once more, but Sheehan engineered his second turnover penalty of the night, only to follow it with his second crooked throw. But Leinster kept Ulster at arm’s length before a final turnover led to Nick McCarthy kicking the ball dead.
Scoring sequence: 9 mins Baird try, Byrne con 0-7; 19 mins Cooney pen 3-7; 21 mins Sheehan try, Byrne con 3-14; 37 mins Byrne pen 3-17; (half-time 3-17); 42 mins Byrne pen 3-20; 62 mins Andrew try, Cooney con 10-20; 73 mins Cooney pen 13-20.
Ulster: Michael Lowry, Aaron Sexton, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Andy Warwick, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor (CAPT), Kieran Treadwell, Matty Rea, Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney
Replacements: John Andrew for Herring (23 mins), Ben Moxham for Stockdale (half-time), Eric O’Sullivan for Warwick, Marty Moore for O’Toole, Greg Jones for Matty Rea (all 58 mins), Sam Carter for Treadwell (63 mins), David Shanahan for Cooney, Angus Curtis for Marshall (both 74 mins).
Leinster: Jimmy O’Brien, Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose (CAPT), Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath, Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa, Ross Molony, Jason Jenkins, Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Charlie Ngatai for Kearney (half-time), James Ryan for Jenkins (56 mins), Ed Byrne for Porter (62 mins), Will Connors for Baird, Nick McCarthy for McGrath, Johnny Sexton for Byrne (67 mins), Vakhtang Abdaladze for Ala’alatoa (74 mins),
Not used: John McKee.
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU, 81st league game)