Ulster 14 Leinster 13
For Leo Cullen, there is little reason to alter a successful formula.
His much-changed Leinster side followed up their Champions Cup semi-final victory over Toulouse with a first loss at the hands of Ulster in almost two years on Saturday, surrendering a half-time advantage to lose 14-13 at Kingspan Stadium.
And while the game had no significance for either side in terms of the league table, the 15 changes made by Cullen mean a whole host of his frontliners will have played no rugby between April 21st and the Champions Cup final clash with Saracens on May 11th.
In contrast, Ulster native Mark McCall fielded a side not dissimilar to the one he figures to put out in St James’ Park for Saracens’ victory over Wasps a few hours prior to Leinster’s defeat.
Cullen, who employed a similar selection policy a year ago when winning a domestic and European double, is not concerned about the possibility of rust among key men.
“I thought it was good game time for a lot of guys,” he said of Saturday’s interpro after which Barry Daly had emerged as the only fresh injury concern. “You could argue the merits of it all day long, I don’t know what is the best formula [but] this is what we’re doing. We did it in the past as well so we wouldn’t be making excuses off the back of it, that’s for sure.
“We don’t want guys to be stumbling over at the end of the season, we want them to be going as strong as ever at the end of the season. Even last year, they played that sequence of games, which was a final in Europe, semi-final Pro 14 and the final of Pro 14, have a weekend off, travel to Australia and play a three-Test series, and they are fine. They are able to manage that pretty well, a lot of guys played three Tests. That is important as well.
“It is not like a stumble out at the end of the season and the guys are in bits being strapped together.”
While there is likely to be no lingering concern over Saturday's result for Cullen, one ongoing reason to fret could be an early incident involving Fergus McFadden, with Ulster seemingly of the belief the winger had headbutted Sean Reidy. The TMO was consulted but didn't appear to have access to the desired camera angle.
Despite that incident it was not a derby with any great needle. Ulster had their eyes fixed on battles ahead too, in their case this weekend’s Pro 14 semi-final playoff with Connacht back in Belfast. Dan McFarland’s men have already been beaten twice by the westerners this season and their likely starting line-up was similarly wrapped in cotton wool.
While the rare win over Leinster could hardly have come with less on the line, it was a significant day for two players at the opposite end of their provincial careers.
Darren Cave, who captained the side on the occasion of his 227th cap, may well have played his last game for the province depending on selection next week, while debutant Marcus Rea had a day to remember, scoring the key try in with 20 minutes remaining in the second half.
The academy flanker, who joined his brother Matthew in the Ulster pack when replacing the injured Reidy after only a quarter of an hour, played for the Irish under-20s in both the Six Nations and World Championship of 2017, lining out alongside a number of those he ended up facing on Saturday.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said of his senior debut. “First and foremost to get on the pitch with Matthew, just to make the parents proud basically.
“That’s what this week was about for me, the other stuff was an added bonus.
“I have to keep my head down [now] and show what I can do in training This pre-season is a big one for me, especially with a World Cup year, if I can get a few more games under my belt and start to push boys.”
Ulster appear increasingly optimistic that Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale will both be available to face Connacht having struggled with ankle and hamstring injuries respectively.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 29 mins: O'Brien try, 0-5; 32: Shanahan try, McPhillips con, 7-5; 39: R Byrne pen, 7-8; 40: McFadden try, 7-13; 61: Marcus Rea try, Nelson con, 14-13.
ULSTER: M Lowry; D Busby, D Cave (capt), P Nelson, A Kernohan; J McPhillips, D Shanahan; A Warwick, J Andrew, R Kane; I Nagle, A O'Connor; M Rea, C Ross, S Reidy.
Replacements: Marcus Rea for S Reidy (15 mins); T O'Toole for Kane (41); A McBurney for Andrew (53); J Stewart for Shanahan (56); J Owens for McPhillips (57); T O'Hagan for Warwick, N Timoney for O'Connor (both 64).
LEINSTER: J O'Brien; F McFadden, J Tomane, N Reid, D Kearney; R Byrne (capt), N McCarthy; J McGrath, B Byrne, M Bent; O Dowling, J Murphy; M Deegan, W Connors, C Doris.
Replacements: P Dooley for McGrath, C Frawley for R Byrne (both 43 mins); Ronan Kelleher for B Byrne (53); V Abadaladze for Bent, B Daly for McFadden, S Penny for Deegan, R Baird for Murphy (all 63); P Patterson for Daly (66).Yellow card: O Dowling.
Referee: G Clancy(IRFU).