Leinster 38 Ulster 29
Leo Cullen’s decision to take off right wing Jimmy O’Brien and replace him with prop Andrew Porter, when Cian Healy was shown a red card after 20 minutes, was the Leinster coach’s biggest decision of an incident-strewn night against Ulster in the RDS.
Cullen’s reasoning to face Ulster a man down in the backline instead of the pack proved to be fateful as Leinster won five tries to four with Ulster’s James Hume and Nick Timoney both in the sin bin at the same time in the second half.
“The way the game is now, you have to be able to deal with that at some point, a red card,” said Cullen afterwards. “Then there’s a few decisions you’ve to make, do you go with seven forwards or eight forwards?
“We take Jimmy off when Andrew comes on, and it leaves us a bit vulnerable in the backfield, and Ulster — they kick a lot — we know we’ll have to deal with the aerial threat.”
James Lowe and Hugo Keenan did just that, although Leinster struggled hugely to adjust in the first half of the match. With Healy gone Ulster sensed vulnerability and instantly exploited their rattled opponents. A penalty kicked to touch shortly after Healy’s departure and Rob Herring peeling off the driving maul gave Ulster their first try after Ross Byrne and John Cooney had exchanged early penalties.
Seven minutes later Kieran Treadwell was barrelling in, again after a kick to touch for an attacking lineout and multiple phases on the Leinster line. Ethan McIlroy completed the first-half rout when Jamie Osbourne flattened Ulster wing Stewart Moore but not before he had delivered to McIlroy who galloped freely down the line.
Three tries in 13 minutes for 3-22 and Leinster were in a deep hole and struggling badly to contain their opponents.
“Ulster are on top during that period,” said Cullen. “We get a little bit of go-forwards, we turn the ball over and they score up the far edge. It’s pretty clinical, and it’s not looking great for us at that stage. Down 22-3, and credit to the lads, the score before half time.”
Leinster’s reply came on the dot of halftime from hooker Ronan Kelleher after a penalty for a high tackle on Jamie Osbourne. The kick to touch and lineout maul is becoming a speciality of Kelleher and Dan Sheehan, this time Kelleher making it a more reasonable 10-22 at the break.
Managing the game and keeping their heads a man up will be Ulster coach Dan McFarland’s biggest regret. Fuelled by the Kelleher try Leinster returned to rip into Ulster with centre Garry Ringrose showing why he is Ireland’s first choice at 13.
Two tries from the captain in a five-minute spell, the first on 58 minutes when he spun out of a James Hume tackle and cut in across the line. A double blow Leinster got the try and Hume a yellow card for a high tackle.
Nick Timoney was also binned minutes later as Leinster then had the extra man and again Ringrose struck. Suddenly it was 24-22 to Leinster.
“We were definitely on the back foot in that third quarter,” said McFarland. “We fueled their confidence with a try just before half time which was … the field position there was avoidable and then the field position we gave them in the second half was probably avoidable as well.
“Momentum is a funny thing in rugby especially when you are playing in a place that is as difficult to win as it is here.”
Jacob Stockdale came on for Hume but the rolls were now reversed and Leinster sensed weakness. When Marcus Rea was penalised for going off his feet in front of the posts, a penalty would have left Ulster needing a try. But Leinster saw bigger things and again kicked to touch for another lineout move this time rewarding Andrew Porter for the fourth try on 73 minutes.
“The forwards grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half and got on top, got in for a few good tries, Garry finishes two tries exceptionally well, and we get the job done,” said Cullen. “It was helter-skelter at times. We could have gone five points in front, but we go to the corner and get over for a try.”
It was then left to crowd-pleaser Lowe for Leinster’s fifth try in his first match back since the Ireland tour to New Zealand in the summer.
That marked 35 points for Leinster without reply from Ulster. Sam Carter grabbed a fourth for a bonus point in the 79th minute but Ulster will leave with questions on discipline and why they were unable to close out a game a man up for three-quarters of the match.
Leinster face Racing ‘92 at the weekend in Le Havre and Ulster travel to Sale for their first venture of the season in Europe. Neither match will come easy.
“We’ll go about our business,” said McFarland. “I don’t think there is any doubt we are going over to play the second-best team in England, an extremely physical team. They have a rest this week. We obviously had a brutal battle here. That obviously makes it extra tough.”
More so now if they have to travel without Henderson, John Cooney and Stewart Moore.
Scoring Sequence — 3 mins R Byrne pen 3-0; 9 mins J Cooney pen 3-3; 22 mins R Herring try, Cooney con 3-10; 28 mins K Treadwell try, Cooney con 3-17; 34 mins E McIlroy try 3-22; 40 mins R Keller try, Byrne con 10-22. Half-time. 58 mins G Ringrose try, Byrne con 17-22; 63 mins G Ringrose try, Byrne con 24-22; 73 mins A Porter try Byrne con; 76 mins J Lowe try, Byrne con 38-22; 80 mins S Catre try, N Doak con 38-29.
Leinster: H Keenan; J O’Brien, G Ringrose ©, J Osbourne, J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; C Healy, R Kelleher, M Ala’alatoa, J Jenkins, J Ryan, R Baird, J Van Der Flier, J Conan. Replacements: A Porter for O’Brien 24 mins; D Sheehan, T Furlong for Kelleher and Ala’altoa 45 mins; C Doris for Conan 56 mins; 66 mins R Moloney for Jenkins; 72 N McCarthy for Gibson Park; Turner for Ringrose 76 mins; C Tector for Byrne 77 mins; Ala’altoa for Furlong 77 mins. Red card: C Healy 20 mins
Ulster: M Lowry; E McIlroy, J Hume, S McCloskey, S Moore; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, T Stewart, M Moore, A O’Connor, K Treadwell, I Henderson ©, M Rea, N Timoney. Replacements – Rob Herring for Stewart 20 mins; N Doak for Cooney 45 mins; T O’Toole and S Carter for Moore and Treadwell 51 mins; D Vermuelen for Henderson 56 mins. J Stockdale for Hume 70 mins. C Reid for Warick 72 mins; M Rea for Timoney 75 mins. Yellow cards: J Hume 58, N Timoney 62
Referee: C Ridley (RFU)