Focused Ulster punish Blues' indiscipline
Ulster 30 Leinster 6
Sometimes having a vastly superior scrum is nowhere near enough to win a rugby game. And one of those times is when you spend 60 of the 80 minutes short a man, with two tries coming either directly or indirectly from it, and are playing a team with a more pressing agenda.
Leinster were, and still are, chasing a home draw in the Pro 12 semi-finals - a bonus point win over Treviso will guarantee them as much regardless of what happens in Galway on Saturday - while Ulster were, and still are, battling just to make the top four. Just a point separates them from Scarlets going to the last leg.
It was a good game to watch, especially for Les Kiss and a crowd of 17,322. The coach saw his team score three out of four if you were to break the game into quarters. They hit Leinster with 10 points in the first, and then put on another 20 without reply in the second half.
"I was absolutely delighted with that," Kiss said. "To expect a scoreline like that, when it was 10-6 close enough to the end, wasn't something we expected. It was great to get that scoreline for sure."
Their main concern was the disparity at the scrum, where Leinster thought they had a penalty machine at their disposal. With Wiehahn Herbst gone for the remainder of the campaign, along with Nick Williams, Ulster are denied some stability in the first place and explosiveness of the back of it in the second.
Ironically, they were at their least efficient when they were numbers up in the first half after Rob Kearney was binned. His departure, and the penalty try that came from his obstruction of Ruan Pienaar was a key moment in the game. The card was justified. Pienaar had used a decoy runner well to break the Leinster defensive line off a ruck in the first place, and with Kearney the last man standing, the Ulster scrum-half chipped him. Certainly Kearney obstructed him, but the chip was over-cooked and there was defensive cover coming from wide. Yet referee George Clancy judged it a penalty try.
"It looked harsh," Leo Cullen said afterwards. "Rob runs his line. It looked pretty dramatic, I thought, from Ruan Pienaar. He seemed to be okay for the remainder of the game. A tough call."
Paddy Jackson tapped over the conversion for a 10-0 lead inside 18 minutes, but Ulster managed to run down the clock for their opponents with three penalties conceded in succession.
On the second of those, Johnny Sexton pulled back three points with a great kick, and then reduced the gap further on 36 minutes when Josh van der Flier was emptied by Luke Marshall with what was deemed a high tackle. That robbed Leinster of their main carrier - he was replaced at half time by Jordi Murphy - and in the second half, having turned over 10-6 down, they began to lose touch dramatically once replacement Luke Fitzgerald was carded for an early tackle on Rory Scholes, himself a late replacement for Craig Gilroy, who was laid low with a virus.
That allowed Jackson to push Ulster out to 13-6, and four minutes later he was converting the killer try from Jared Payne. With an extra man put wide they sensibly exploited it once the maul had engaged the Leinster pack.
That 10-point haul against 14 men was a reassuring period for the home team. From the restart Ulster looked like they were on a training spin, running through wide phases with ease to exit from their own half to within five metres of the Leinster line.
The last quarter was a stroll for Ulster. Throughout their passing had been really accurate, and their shape looked far better than their opponents.
Jackson tacked on another three points on 71 minutes, and then followed up with a great solo try that presented the prospect of a bonus point. And they came desperately close to nailing it - it would have been a contender for try of the season, and fell down only on the last pass with Darren Cave trying to fix the last defender and put Scholes over in the corner. It didn't quite come off.
Still, Ulster delivered when they had to against the side with the most wins in the league. This is the time of the season when you need to be kicking on, and aside from that dodgy scrum, Ulster did just that.
Scorers - Ulster: Jackson try, 3 pens, con, Penalty try, Payne try, Marshall 2 cons. Leinster: Sexton 2 pens.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall (D Cave 74), S McCloskey (S Olding 54), R Scholes; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 74); C Black (K McCall 51), R Best (capt)(R Herring 68), R Lutton (A Warwick 68), P Browne (R Diack 64), F van der Merwe, I Henderson, S Reidy, C Henry (R Wilson 55).
Leinster: R Kearney (yc 18-28); I Nacewa (capt), G Ringrose (L Fitzgerald 51; yc 54-64), B Te'o, D Kearney (I Madigan 72); J Sexton, L McGrath (E Reddan 51); J McGrath (P Dooley 70), R Strauss (S Cronin 51), T Furlong (M Ross 51), D Toner, H Triggs (M Kearney 53), R Ruddock, J Heaslip, J van der Flier (J Murphy h-t).
Referee: G Clancy (IRFU).
Sunday Indo Sport