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Leinster take significant step on long road to play-offs

Best disappointed as Ulster suffer their first home defeat in the Pro14 for a year

Leinster’s Luke McGrath scores a try against Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho


Leinster’s eighth win in nine competitive matches this season was their most significant in the Pro14 to date, as it propelled them to second in Conference B, above Ulster.

 Come the season’s end, finishing in that order would constitute the difference between a home or away quarter-final, which on current standings would see Leinster at home to the Cheetahs and Ulster away to Munster. Some difference.

 Awaiting them in the semi-finals would be Glasgow and the Scarlets, with Glasgow at home to the winners of a putative Leinster-Cheetahs semi-final, and the Scarlets at home to either Munster or Ulster.

 Viewed in that context, Leinster’s meetings with Ulster and vice versa are potentially the most important of their provincial derbies this season. Furthermore, this win kept Leinster within three points of the Scarlets, whom they face at home and away during the Six Nations window.

 “We talked this week about how in football they have relegation six-pointers, so it felt like it was this ten-pointer today, in that you have this ten-point swing, so thankfully it’s four points in our favour in the head to head.”

 Leinster coach Leo Cullen revealed they were even waving their players back to the halfway line after Luke McGrath scored their third try in the 78th minute with a view to a hopeful shot at a fourth try.

 “It is important that we’re scrapping for every point, particularly with Ulster, Scarlets, Edinburgh and Treviso on our side of the conference. It’s much more relevant when we play those teams because they’re in our pool, and where we finish is of huge significance.

 “Finish first and you get a week off, at that time of year. Finish second and you’re at home [in the quarter-finals] but even if you win that you’re going to be away to the number-one ranked side from the other conference. So it certainly creates a few more scenarios and potential banana skins.”

 Like those Scarlets games, Leinster’s second sortie to Glasgow in a fortnight will be another test of their squad resources.

“It’s important we stay focussed now,” said Cullen, at which point a mobile phone rang with the Dad’s Army theme tune as a ring tone, “because some guys will need a bit of a break,” he continued, laughing.

Massively disappointed

 “That’s a fantastic tune. I didn’t realise you could get that as a ring tone,” said Cullen, adding: “So, it’s important that we stay focused – stay focused – with all these distractions going on!” Boom boom.

 This first home defeat in the Pro14 for a year, and first at home to Leinster in four seasons, was thus also all the more damaging for Ulster. On the occasion of his 200th appearance for his province, it also extended Rory Best’s losing sequence in 2017 in an Ulster shirt. The run now stands at eight and dates back to the home win over Connacht last December.

 “We are massively disappointed,” admitted Best. Already sorely missing Marcel Coetzee again, Best pointed to the early loss of Jean Deysel and said: “We are a team which need phases to get into a game. We are not a La Rochelle where there are four or five people over 120/130 kg. We need flow, we need a strong set piece, we need all that and unfortunately tonight we did not get that. A lot of knock-ons, couple of turnovers, and while our scrum was good our lineout did not function to the standards we set.”

 Indeed, Ulster lost six throws, four with Best on the field and two with Rob Herring, but as against Wasps there were a mix of malfunctions.

 “When you start to get that it is very hard to get out of your own half and you get under pressure,” said Best. “Leinster capitalised unbelievably well on the chances they got, but we said in the changing rooms that it was one of the most disappointing results we have had in a while.”

 At least this first start of the season will have sharpened him.

 “I feel good, I’ll get a bit more work done this week. There were areas I’m disappointed with, areas I was rusty, but there’s two weeks to get that right. This was the perfect sort of game for me to play in. If you’re not right you get found out. It gets the blood flowing. All due respect to some other teams in this league, this is one that you have to be on the money for, as we found out.”

 Cullen was reminded that Leinster had a habit of spoiling big occasions at the Kingspan Stadium, such as the latter’s opening, of sorts, in May 2014 when their 22-20 win also soured Johann Muller’s farewell appearance.

 “We couldn’t spoil the party in this game last year for Ruan Pienaar,” he said, laughing. “The party seemed to be kicking on at our expense.”

Cullen recalled how their respective families had been friends since he and Best’s older brother, Simon, were on a 1996 schools tour in citing Best’s “amazing career”.

 “That’s the great thing about Irish rugby, people play for their provinces, where they grew up, which creates that sense of identity. It’s something really special and something that should be cherished.

“Characters like Rory Best should certainly be celebrated – a great servant for Ulster rugby. You think back even to when he had his neck injury and a lot of people thought he might be finished at that stage. What he’s done in his career since then has been remarkable.”

 Scoring sequence: 7 mins Leali’ifano pen 0-3; 16 mins Larmour try, R Byrne con 3-7; 28 mins Reidy try, Leali’ifano con 10-7; 31 mins R Byrne pen 10-10; 38 mins R Byrne pen 10-13; 60 mins L McGrath try 10-18; 78 mins L McGrath try, Marsh con 10-25.

 ULSTER: C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, A Cairns; C Black, R Best, R Ah You, A O’Connor, I Henderson (capt), S Reidy, C Henry, J Deysel.  Replacements: R Diack for Jean Deysel (16 mins), R Herring for Best, A Warwick for Black (both 57 mins), K Treadwell for O’Connor (62 mins), J Stewart for Cairns (63 mins), P Nelson for Leali’ifano (67 mins), L Ludik for McCloskey (70 mins), R Kane for Ah You (74 mins). 

 LEINSTER: R Kearney; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, N Reid, D Kearney; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; J McGrath, J Tracy, T Furlong, D Toner, J Ryan, D Leavy, J Murphy, S O’Brien (capt). Replacements: J Larmour for Reid (3 mins), R Molony for Ryan (12 mins), C Healy for J McGrath (48 mins), J Conan for Levy, L McGrath for Gibson-Park (both 57 mins), A Porter for Furlong (61 mins), R Strauss for Tracy (67 mins),C Marsh for R Byrne (78 mins).  Sinbinned: D Kearney (55-65 mins). 

 Referee: John Lacey (IRFU).