Ulster 18 Leinster 13
You couldn’t help but feel that the occasion which brought the league’s top two together really deserved better.
Not that much could have been done for this rearranged interpro anyway – moved from New Year’s Day courtesy of Covid – with it being rammed in just after events at Twickenham. And then the weather decided that it would have its pound of flesh as well by manufacturing a night of rain and swirling wind which dictated that this could only be a fairly ugly arm wrestle.
As such, the overriding takeaway was one of frustration for both coaches.
Leo Cullen headed home knowing that his side, heavily diluted by international commitments, had most of the play and yet failed to take anything more than a losing bonus point, while Dan McFarland, though clearly pleased to win a fifth straight URC game, sounded less than delighted with aspects of his team’s display.
Still, it was a very valuable victory for Ulster – and a noteworthy first double over their southern neighbours since 2013 – who have now closed the gap to just one point between themselves and leaders Leinster while, crucially, keeping ahead of the chasing field with five rounds to go prior to the playoffs.
“Yes, it was a frustrating game with lots of effort and endeavour,” said Cullen.
“And a big moment in the second half when we were camped on Ulster’s line and we get done for obstruction,” he wryly added.
“In the first half we probably let Ulster off the hook a few times with cheap penalties we gave away which allowed them get a lot of territory on us at different stages, but it’s a tough place to come here.
“But there was a lot of effort from the guys and conditions were very difficult and got worse as the game went on,” he added, before looking ahead to an interprovincial dominated latter stage of the season.
“We’ve a good string of interpros now, a week with no game, then Connacht, Munster and then Connacht back-to-back [in Europe],” said Cullen, though Leinster also finish their regulation league season against Munster at the Aviva Stadium.
“It will be good when we get all the group together now off the back of the Six Nations and everything is building towards that last block of the season.”
McFarland could only concur regarding how the conditions had dictated so much of what followed at Ulster’s Kingspan fortress.
“It certainly wasn’t pretty,” he said. “It wasn’t a game we played particularly well in, but to stay in the game like we did and then put in the defensive effort in the second half, when other areas of our game weren’t functioning, was a testament to the amount of work that lads put in.
“Winning in Dublin [in November] was the big one for us and we played well, we didn’t play very well this time but ground out the win.
“The lads should take a lot of confidence from that and be proud of the achievement,” added McFarland, who now turns his attention to next week and the challenge of a two-game trip to South Africa before meeting Toulouse back-to-back in Europe.
To their credit, Ireland squad members Michael Lowry and Robert Baloucoune managed to produce the game's most memorable moment when both combined well to put the Ulster fullback over the line for the home team's second and, as it turned out, final try of the evening in the 34th minute.
Prior to that Ulster had taken an early lead after Sam Carter had barrelled over from close range in the eighth minute with Nathan Doak converting.
But Leinster, whose tactical kicking game had Ulster struggling throughout most of the contest, came back to take a narrow lead through a Ross Byrne penalty and then conversion of Max Deegan's 26th-minute touchdown.
Doak then levelled things up with a penalty just after the half-hour before Lowry and Baloucoune conjured up the former’s score, which went unconverted.
With the clock in red, Doak then slotted his second penalty to give Ulster an 18-10 interval lead.
Just a minute after the restart Ross Byrne landed his second penalty to close the gap to five points but this proved to be the only score of the half and, with the weather deteriorating further, the game descended into a slug-fest with Leinster largely on top but unable to progress against a resolute Ulster defence.
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, S Moore, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; B Burns, N Doak; A Warwick, J Andrew, M Moore; A O'Connor (capt), S Carter; M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: T Stewart for Andrew (37 mins), E O'Sullivan for Warwick, M Kearney for Carter, J Cooney for Doak (all 47); J Murphy for Rea (54), B Moxham for Vermeulen (66), G Milasinovich for Moore (79). Unused: I Madigan
LEINSTER: J O'Brien; A Byrne, R O'Loughlin, J Osborne, T O'Brien; R Byrne L McGrath (capt); P Dooley, J Tracy, M Ala'alatoa; R Molony, J McCarthy; R Ruddock, S Penny, M Deegan.
Replacements: S Cronin for Tracy, D Leavy for Penny (both 56 mins), N McCarthy for McGrath (66), T Clarkson for Ala'alatoa (67), M Moloney for Ruddock (69), D Toner for Molony (71), D Hawkshaw for J O'Brien (74), T Lasisi for Byrne (79).
Referee: F Murphy (IRFU).