The more games the merrier for Leinster and their Lions
A place in the Rainbow Cup final hangs in the balance despite enthralling win over Ulster
Robbie Henshaw made another big contribution in Leinster’s win over Ulster. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Although this has been the longest and most trying season imaginable, a place in the Rainbow Cup final would actually be greatly welcomed by Leinster, not least as it would add to their two remaining fixtures in this competition. They need every game they can muster.
Satisfying the needs of the four Lions who want to hit the ground running in South Africa, the fringe contenders who want to keep themselves in the frame in the event of there being late call-ups and others seeking recognition in Ireland’s summer Tests, is some juggling act.
“Yeah, it is, but at least there is plenty still at stake for players,” said Leo Cullen in Friday’s compelling 21-17 win over Ulster at the RDS. “Regardless of what is going on in the competition, there are the individual subplots in that as well.
“There’s also the next tier who are just kind of a little bit off in terms of getting selected or narrowly missed out on selection, so those guys need to keep themselves in the shop window.
“As always, it’s a competitive group, guys want to play, and hopefully we’ll have a few guys back to freshen up the squad as well that have missed out over the last couple of weeks.”
Leinster now have a three-week break until their next game in Glasgow, when Rhys Ruddock, Harry Byrne, Johnny Sexton, Will Connors and Ciarán Frawley should be back in the frame.
Many of them and others rested against Ulster were amongst a boisterous group of non-playing squaddies in the stands. With James Lowe leading the relentless chorus of encouragement even more loudly than he does from the left wing, they also rather gave the lie to the notion that players make bad spectators.
Those on the pitch responded, not least in continually springing from their feet, shooting up from the line and making single, double or treble hits. With only 43 per cent possession, although they missed 37 tackles, Leinster executed a whopping 228 against an Ulster side who threw everything at them.
A fired-up James Ryan led the way with 29 (while also winning lineouts and turnovers), followed by Caelan Doris on 25 in a shift of nigh on 90 minutes on his return, and Josh van der Flier on 23. Ryan Baird also added real bite off the line and their scramble defence was brilliant.
Iain Henderson had a huge game, as did Nick Timoney and Sean Reidy, Dave Shanahan maintained a high tempo in a rare start, and the carrying and offloading of Stuart McCloskey and the classy James Hume were a constant threat. Ian Madigan’s contender for pass of the season to set up Craig Gilroy’s try and a grandstand finish again made you wonder why he has been restricted mostly to cameos this season.
Ulster matched Leinster’s seven line breaks but scored two tries from 10 entries inside the 22, while Leinster scored three from eight.
Confirmation of the planned cross-hemisphere final means there is only one spot out of 12 contenders following this ingeniously conceived sprint over five random games. Leinster’s failure to add a fourth bonus point try in the final quarter could thus cost them a place in the final.
“The last 20 minutes was very frustrating,” admitted Cullen. “That will be the focal point for us, just nailing some of the detail in our play because you can have all the endeavour in the world, but if you’re not nailing the detail part of the game, it can be wasted energy.”
Leinster’s Lions made their presence tell, Jack Conan being sprung from the bench to score a wonderful game-breaking try before Robbie Henshaw’s powerful finish rounded off another imperious performance.
“He’s flying into things out there. It’s great to see,” said Cullen.
But too much so on the half-hour mark with a high hit on Robert Baloucoune, which was dangerous and would have incurred a red card had it been a fraction higher or if the Ulster winger had dipped.
“That cannot be nothing,” an irate Henderson responded to referee Mike Adamson after his ‘captain’s challenge’ was lost. “That’s such a dangerous tackle on our player.”
Speaking from the Premier Sports’ studios, Darren Cave, Ulster’s joint most capped player of all time, said: “I love Robbie Henshaw’s intent. I love how he gets off the line and how aggressive he enters the contact zone. But I hate absolutely everything about the tackle.
“I think for youngsters watching at home, it’s a shocking advertisement for the game. If I was one of Rob Baloucoune’s parents right now watching that, I would be shaken.
“We’re lucky that wasn’t head-on-head and one of them got a serious injury. We need players to tackle lower than that. I’m amazed we’re saying that’s acceptable.”
However, Ulster head coach Dan McFarland said: “The view that we have, it looked to me that there’d been a collision with the body and up to the head which should have been a yellow card. However I’m not privy to all the angles. I wasn’t watching that closely.
“Mike made the decision and it is what it is. I don’t think it was decisive anyway but it meant that we lost our captain’s challenge which was disappointing.”
The full-time whistle gone on another feisty interpro, a captain’s challenge by Luke McGrath was not accepted by Adamson on the grounds that the Leinster doctor, Jim McShane, had advised McGrath to do so.
“The captain’s challenge is proving challenging, I think it’s fair to say,” ventured a deadpan Cullen with either deliberate or unintended irony. “And distracting.”