Paddy Jackson orchestrates big Ulster win over Leinster

Les Kiss’s side put one foot in the Pro 12 play-offs with dominant win over rivals

Ulster 30 Leinster 6

Ulster put one foot into the play-offs, and ensured Leinster will have to beat Treviso next Saturday if they are to ensure a home semi-final, with this handsome and at times thrilling win over their provincial rivals a fine way to sign off their season at the Kingspan Stadium.

A victory away to the Ospreys should be enough to nail down a semi-final for Ulster, although on an intriguing final Saturday, the Ospreys have put themselves back in the Champions Cup frame, albeit at a push, with their bonus-point win over Cardiff.

As for Leinster, they have dropped to third, but with the top two, Glasgow and Connacht meeting in Galway, a victory over Treviso should suffice in earning a home semi-final, and a five-point haul certainly would do.


With Ruan Pienaar rising to the occasion, Paddy Jackson was the architect and creator in chief at the hub of an Ulster side which played with way more ambition and, especially, accuracy in winning by three tries to nil. Leinster had 62 per cent of the possession and territory, but rarely looked like penetrating Ulster's white line, whereas aside from being more up for the game, Ulster also played with more enterprise and thrust, while both Luke Marshall and Andrew Trimble had big games.

Ulster, as you suspected they would have, possessed an altogether more developed and varied attacking game, with more decoy runners and straighter lines of running. Leinster, by comparison, looked laboured, blunter and more lateral, as they played plenty of side to side rugby with little or no penetration unless the departing Ben Te’o was on the ball.

Not only did Ulster have more effective and slicker strike moves as well as better lines of running, their skills set held up better under pressure, and it is a feather in their collective caps that the team with the best defence in the league missed 22 tackles.

The amount of times Ulster players chipped up the middle or grubbered out wide strongly suggested this was a deliberate tactic by Les Kiss’s team as they had identified how Leinster left space in behind

As you'd expect, Ulster were keen to give Leinster a warm welcome to Belfast, Jared Payne bouncing Dave Kearney before Luke McGrath gathered a wickedly high bouncing ball and, upon landing, was legally clattered into by Trimble.

Jackson was quick to give Ulster plenty of width, taking the ball to the gain line and putting plenty of zip on it, as Ulster freed Trimble a couple of times. But it was form aerial ping-pong, and a Pienaar Garryowen up the middle, that Luke McGrath blocked Trimble for Jackson to open the scoring.

There was a palpable edge to these rivals' latest set-to, and lots of off-the-ball stuff bubbling under the surface as Rob Kearney took exception to Rory Best's counter-rucking. Essentially, it was a battle between Ulster's running game and Leinster's defence, as the home side went wide right and wide left as Jackson executed wraps of strike moves.

Leinster had their moments, Te'o stepping Peter Browne and Josh van der Flier making a trademark steal before Luke McGrath did some sharp and elusive covering work under his posts from a chip up the middle by Jackson.

Soon after, Pienaar dummied superbly off the base and sniped, then chipped Rob Kearney, who clearly looked Pienaar in the eye as he stepped and then fell across him. Repeated video replays did Kearney little favours, and he was correctly sin-binned, although far more contentious was George Clancy’s decision to also award a penalty try. Not alone was the quick Luke McGrath covering, but the ruling also pre-supposed how a rugby ball might bounce. In any event, Jackson tapped over the conversion for a 10-0 lead.

That seemed to awaken Leinster, Heaslip and co coming harder onto the ball. Leinster managed the 10 minutes without their '15' better than Ulster, shifting their blindside winger, be it Dave Kearney or Isa Nacewa, to fullback, which made Luke Marshall's kick ahead in the outside channels off another wide scrum move all the more curious, especially so when it went out on the full.

Having opted to go up the line with two penalties, Sexton elected for a shot at goal from the right touchline, about 35 to 40 metres out taking in the angle, and landed a sweet kick to win the 10 minutes three-nil just before his fullback returned. Rob Kearney promptly covered an attempted little grubber by Rory Scholes – in for Craig Gilroy who was withdrawn with a virus – and countered infield.

Sexton added another penalty before the break, and after Trimble this time dumped Garry Ringrose with the last play of the half, Te'o made a stunning break from deep. Leinster went to their scrum and maul. But when they transferred through Devin Toner in the middle to Hayden Triggs at the tail, Franco van der Merwe seemed to read the move and defended it superbly to force a turnover.

It was a big moment, to be followed by an even bigger one. When Stuart McCloskey charged up the middle and offloaded in the direction of Scholes, the winger's arm was tugged by Luke Fitzgerald a fraction before he received the ball. Slow motion replays made it worse after further recourse to the TMO. A penalty? Yes. A yellow card? Hmmm. Fitzgerald received a yellow and Jackson made it 13-6.

And this time Ulster made the absolute most of their numerical advantage with another sweetly executed strike move off a scrum. Stuart Olding ran a hard straight line to check the drift, and Jackson also dummied to Trimble inside him before passing out to Luke Marshall, thus giving the centre time to free Payne who, typically, utilised the space to score himself despite having Scholes outside. It was against 14 men, but you wouldn't have backed Leinster to do it. Luke Marshall, who outshone Ringrose, took the conversion.

The four sides of the ground were awash with fluttering white flags as Jackson converted for a 20-6 lead. Soon after, Stand Up for the Ulstermen echoed around the Kingspan, and stand up they all did, before they cheered raucously as Jackson’s penalty extended the lead.

There was practically a carnival atmosphere for the home side's comfortable endgame in the Belfast sunshine, which was given further life when Jackson, of all people, smashed Ian Madigan, of all people, in the tackle.

Better still followed from Jackson, who led the defensive line as Eoin Reddan came infield from a scrum and attempted to hit Fitzgerald, coming in off his wing as a late first receiver. Jackson led the line so hard he actually turned a tackle into an intercept, and then showed impressive gas to race 80 metres untouched.

Paul Marshall drop-kicked the conversion, thereby giving Ulster one more play for the bonus-point try. They nearly managed it too, the whacked looking Jackson finding Darren Cave with a trademark flat skip pass but his pass to Scholes was read by Nacewa, whereas if Marshall had dummied he'd have walked in the fourth try.

Easy from the cheap seats, where much of the crowd remained as the squad completed a celebratory lap of honour in their final home game of the season. As send-offs go, not a bad one at all.

SCORING SEQUENCE: 12 mins Jackson pen 3-0; 18 mins penalty try, Jackson con 10-0; 28 mins Sexton pen 10-3; 36 mins Sexton pen 10-6; (half-time 10-6); 54 mins Jackson pen 13-6; 58 mins Payne try, L Marshall con 20-6; 71 mins Jackson pen 23-6; 79 mins Jackson try, P Marshall con 30-6.

ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Rory Best (capt), Ricky Lutton; Peter Browne, Franco van der Merwe; Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy.

Replacements: Kyle McCall for Black (6-15, 26-32 and 51 mins), Roger Wilson for Henry, Stuart Olding for McCloskey (both 55 mins), Robbie Diack for Browne (64 mins), Rob Herring for Best, Andrew Warwick for Lutton (68 mins), Paul Marshall for Pienaar, Darren Cave for L Marshall (both 74 mins).

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Isa Nacewa (capt), Garry Ringrose, Ben Te'o, Dave Kearney; Jonathan Sexton, Luke McGrath; Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, Hayden Triggs; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Jordi Murphy for van der Flier (half-time), Seán Cronin for Strauss, Mike Ross for Furlong, Eoin Reddan for L McGrath, Luke Fitzgerald foir Ringrose (all 51 mins), Mick Kearney for Triggs (53 mins), Ian Madigan for D Kearney (72 mins), Not used: Peter Dooley.

Sinbinned: Rob Kearney (18-28 mins), Fitzgerald (54-64 mins).

Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times