Ruthless Leinster squeeze the life out of Ulster’s challenge
Disciplined defensive performance paves the way for another emphatic final success
Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw avails of an intercept to score a try against Ulster during the Pro14 final at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
LEINSTER 27 ULSTER 5
Defences win championships goes the old adage, and few final wins underlined the point like this one.
Of course, few teams know how to win deciders quite like Leinster, for this was their ninth win out of 14 finals in the last 11 years, and they were at their most ruthlessly efficient whenever Ulster had the ball.
Uncharacteristically coughing up four of their own throws, and again being pinged heavily at the breakdown where Ulster had particularly joy in trapping Jack Conan three times on the deck, this meant Leinster afforded Ulster quite an amount of possession.
What’s more, when Ulster cleverly unpicked the Leinster defence with less than four minutes on the clock for the talented 22-year-old James Hume to score with a classy and classical outside centre try, it was a case of Game On.
Yet when Robbie Henshaw easily picked off Billy Burns’ long skip pass to their go-to man Marcell Coetzee in the 46th minute and ran in the intercept try unopposed, it was Game Over.
A recurring theme of Leinster’s games since the resumption has been the manner they’ve invariably answered back on the scoreboard after conceding, and after a nice strike move and strong carries by Ross Byrne, Henshaw and the exceptional Caelan Doris, Jamison Gibson-Park used an advantage play to put James Lowe over in the corner.
After Henshaw’s try, all that remained was for Doris to seal the deal when crashing over for a try with a signature hard line onto Luke McGrath’s pass. Working Lowe into the line off set-piece plays, they ought really have added to their total.
It was entirely fitting that Leinster’s relentless line speed and organisation in defence should earn the decisive score. As if slighted by that Hume try, as in the semi-final against Munster, they kept the opposition tryless and pointless for the last 75 minutes.
Admittedly, Ulster turned down quite a few three-pointers in going to the corner on the fairly safe presumption that they would need to score two or three tries in order to dethrone the champions.
They also played with width and wit, offloading or tipping on passes in traffic through Stuart McCloskey or the forwards, and continually sought to ask questions of the Leinster defence. But the Leinster defence invariably had the answers, making 200 tackles and missing just 15.
Jack Conan led the way with 20, as all but one of the pack were in double figures. Andrew Porter, “a remarkable character” admitted Leo Cullen, looks stronger than ever since the lockdown and had a huge game. Ulster also kept probing the 20-12-13 axis of Ross Byrne, Henshaw and Garry Ringrose to little avail. They made 42 tackles between them.
Collectively they seemed to love it when Ulster had the ball, keeping two men in the back field, never committing more than one or two to the breakdown, and thus always having a thick blue line of 12 or 13 players.
This is clearly the product of, and thus a manifestation, of the standards set by the extended squad in training, a point emphasized by Josh van der Flier afterwards.
“It’s the nuts and bolts of the game, the quality of the sessions during the week with some of the players who don’t get the chance to be here today. They prepared the team well, particularly Tuesday and Thursday – that’s huge. It’s that train hard and play easy mentality.”
Defending, said van der Flier, is also a mindset as much as it is about organization, communication and technical execution.
“The most basic thing about rugby is that if you are more physical and you win the gainline then you will probably win the game. We have obviously built that up, getting our preparation up. But we can’t underestimate the contribution of Hugh Hogan, our skills coach, getting that tackle technique right.”
Such a win is both more tiring and rewarding, said the flanker, but added: “Looking back when we review it at the start of the week for Saracens we’ll be disappointed that we had to defend so much.
“I heard Leo speaking about it earlier after the game. We have to be more clinical trying to hold onto the ball. When we did defend, Ulster actually attack very well and we just managed to scramble quite well and work really hard. We didn’t make many mistakes in defence and just worked really hard, put some good contacts in so I think it doesn’t really do justice to how good Ulster were.
“I think it was one of our most pleasing defensive performances this season. Ulster are a very good side but very pleasing to keep them out for that amount of time.”
Van der Flier appreciates how fortunate any player is to be representing this greedy, trophy-hauling organisation, especially as due to injuries his only previous final was in Glasgow last season.
This one however will always be tinged with a little regret that no family or friends were in the ground.
“On a personal level, not having your family and loved ones around you is very strange, even not being in a position to see them after this either because my family is from Wicklow and they’re kind of in their own bubble.
“I was just on the phone on the pitch to my parents, I won’t get to see them for another while. It’s very strange times where I can’t just run to the side of the pitch and give them a hug, but that’s the way it is.
“We don’t really get to interact how you normally would, where everyone would be at the game and you’d see them after for some kind of function. You feel for the supporters who follow us everywhere around the world, wherever we go they’re always there supporting us.
“Even more so than family and loved ones, it’s the other lads in the squad who put as much or more in than the lads who got to play today. They didn’t get to be on the pitch for that feeling.”
Scoring sequence: 4 mins Hume try 0-5; 13 mins Lowe try, Byrne con 7-5; 26 mins Byrne pen 10-5; (half-time 10-5); 45 mins Byrne pen 13-5; 46 mins Henshaw try, Byrne con 20-5; 72 mins Doris try, Sexton con 27-5.
LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour, Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose (capt), James Lowe, Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Ed Byrne for Healy (53 mins), James Tracy for Kelleher, Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park, Johnny Sexton for R Byrne (all 60 mins), Michael Bent for Porter, Scott Fardy for Ryan (63 mins), Rory O’Loughin for Ringrose (68 mins), Will Connors for van der Flier (74 mins).
ULSTER: Michael Lowry, Rob Lyttle, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, Alby Mathewson; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (capt), Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy, Marcell Coetzee.
Replacements: John Andrew for Herring (21 mins), Jack McGrath for O’Sullivan, Sam Carter for Henderson, John Cooney for Mathewson, Nick Timoney for Coetzee (all 47 mins), Ian Madigan for Burns (55 mins), Marty Moore for O’Toole, Jordi Murphy for Rea (both 56 mins),
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)