Leinster power on to Champions Cup quarter-finals after beating Ulster in rain-soaked derby

Leicester next up for Leinster, who were too strong for a dogged Ulster team that defended heroically at times

Jack Conan of Leinster looks to make a break against Ulster. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Leinster 30 Ulster 15

Leinster duly powered on to an 18th Champions Cup quarter-final by beating Ulster for a third time in this competition and will face Leicester Tigers back here at the Aviva Stadium, almost certainly in six days’ time on Good Friday.

The teeming rain made for a rain-soaked derby and one felt for both the fans and the players. The conditions certainly dictated the nature of the game and although it was a sell-out, there were an increasing amount of empty seats in the exposed front-rows that was entirely understandable.

Nor, until all jeopardy had gone in the final quarter, did the rain dampen the enthusiasm of an engaged crowd.


Champions Cup as it happened: Leinster too strong for Ulster at the AvivaOpens in new window ]

Ulster, in a black and gold reserve kit, were up for the fight and defended heroically - Rob Herring leading the way with 26 tackles. The thousands of visiting fans made their voices heard when they could but as Leinster increasingly turned the screw with classic, cup-tie pressure rugby, becalmed them both alike.

The number of aerial duels was akin to an Aussie Rules game, and so too some of the skills. Ross Byrne kicked superbly out of hand and, bar two, off the ‘t’ as well, as is evidenced by Leinster having 62 per cent possession and 74 per cent territory.

In truth though, Leinster’s famed attack never really fired but their forwards are effectively the Irish pack, and this showed as the accuracy of their lineout and the potency of their catch-and-drive and scrum dampened Ulster’s fire.

Then they just continuously launched their big ball carriers. Jack Conan led the way with 20 carries for 40 hard-won metres, with the towering James Ryan, athletic Ryan Baird and indefatigable Dan Sheehan leading the charge.

Ultimately, Ulster had to make 192 tackles (missing 15) to Leinster’s 92, with just one missed.

Given the rain and the sodden ball, it was always going to be a particularly testing evening for the back three players, and particularly the fullbacks, under the aerial stuff.

Michael Lowry couldn’t deal with the first of Byrne’s short, hanging restarts up the middle and there was even that rarity, a knock-on by Hugo Keenan, from Billy Burns’ wickedly deflected kick. This led to Nathan Doak opening the scoring, and putting Leinster behind for the first time in the competition since the last play of last season’s final.

Even though Lowry dealt with Byrne’s next restart, within two minutes the Leinster outhalf had levelled matters after McCloskey went off his feet.

McCloskey was having a good game though, and earned an important turnover penalty after Keehan had reclaimed a Byrne up and under before offloading to Jimmy O’Brien.

After a brilliant take and carry by Jordan Larmour, Byrne rewarded his pack from a scrum penalty on halfway to find touch within 10 metres of the Ulster line. A clever variation, to of all people, Robbie Henshaw, before the packed sweeped to the blindside, Josh van der Flier popping the ball free before carries by Jack Conan and Ross Molony led to Ryan Baird crashing through the tackles of David McCann and Rory Sutherland to complete a fine finish.

After another catch and drive variation 40 metres out from Dan Sheehan’s superb long throw, Byrne nailed a fine penalty after Tom O’Toole went to ground, but Ulster’s response was excellent.

A leaping Jacob Stockdale regathered his own kick for a second time and Billy Burns, spotting how narrow the Leinster defence had become, crosskicked with pinpoint accuracy for James Hume to step James Lowe and score in the right corner.

Although Byrne missed from around 45 metres out to the right of the posts, the Leinster pack cranked up their intensity some more and it looked like Conan had scored off a close-range tape penalty when sweeping back to the blindside but at the behest of away fans and players – who had been alerted by a member of their backroom staff – video footage showed that the number ‘8′ had grounded short of the line before losing control of the ball.

Ulster repelled a wave of one-off charges before Gibson-Park’s looping pass was picked off by Hume. So, when Leinster settled for another three-pointer (one wondered would they have done so if Sexton was there) to leave it 16-8 at the break, it must have felt like a minor win for the visitors.

As the rain fell even more heavily at the start of the second period, James Ryan easily picked off Ulster’s first lineout inside the Leinster 22 and then, after Gibson-Park’s fine tackle at the base of an Ulster scrum on Duane Vermeulen, he charged down John Cooney’s first box kick upon his arrival.

This assumed even more importance when Rob Herring’s throw didn’t hit Alan O’Connor and van der Flier charged at the Ulster defence. Hume was a little harshly binned as well as conceding a penalty when adjudged not to have released when appearing to win a legitimate turnover.

This time Leinster went for the corner and the jugular. Again a wave of close-in charges were repelled before Henshaw’s attempted pull back missed Byrne. But as so often happens when the ball goes to the deck, Ulster were caught off guard as Gibson-Park picked up on the retreat, beat Stockdale’s outstretched tackle and cut inside McCloskey to scamper in between he posts.

Again though Ulster’s response was swift and telling, working their way into strike range for their renowned maul as Herring hit their Trinity-based academy lock Harry Sheridan at the tail before the pack powered over for Herring to complete the touchdown.

Cooney converted too and when Byrne kicked fractionally too long with his restart it seemed like a potential momentum shift. In fact, it turned out to be a masterstroke.

The Leinster pack obliterated the ensuing Ulster scrum and when Byrne found touch inside the Ulster 22 there was an inevitability about what happened next. Again Ulster withheld another wave of blue attacks before Jimmy O’Brien was held up over the line, but after Scott Penny was just short from a tap penalty move, Andrew Porter burrowed over from close range.

Although 17 minutes remained, and although by now the rain had relented, ironically that was pretty much that really. Both benches were emptied, and with Sheridan binned for a high tackle on Leinster could afford to remove some frontliners as they saw out the remainder of the game deep in Ulster territory.

Scoring sequence: 11 mins Doak pen 0-3; 12 mins Byrne pen 3-3; 20 mins Baird try, Byrne con 10-3; 26 mins Byrne pen 13-3; Hume try 13-8; 38 mins Byrne pen 16-8; (half-time 16-8); 54 mins Gibson-Park try, Byrne con 23-8; 58 mins Herring try, Cooney con 23-15; 63 mins Porter try, Byrne con 30-15.

Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Jimmy O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, James Ryan (capt), Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements _ Scott Penny for van der Flier (55 mins), Michael Ala’alatoa for Furlong (64 mins), Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park (67 mins), Jason Jenkins for Ryan (68 mins), John McKee for Sheehan, Cian Healy for Porter (both 70 mins), Harry Byrne for R Byrne, Ciarán Frawley for Henshaw (both 73 mins).

Ulster: Michael Lowry, Rob Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; Rory Sutherland, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor (Captain), Kieran Treadwell, Dave McCann, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: Jeffery Toomaga-Allen for O’Toole (half-time), Harry Sheridan for McCann (47 mins), John Cooney for Doak (50 mins), Stewart Moore (55 mins), Tom Stewart for Herring (59 mins), Eric O’Sullivan for Sutherland, Herring for Steward (both 62 mins), Marcus Rea for Treadwell (67 mins), Ben Moxham (79 mins).

Sinbinned: Hume (53-63 mins), Sheridan (68-78 mins).

Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times