O'Loughlin brace sinks Ulster but Blues let bonus point slip
Leinster 22 Ulster 7
Out of a possible 10 points over the Christmas period Leinster picked up only four. Whatever about coming away empty-handed from Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day, missing the five points target at the RDS yesterday was remiss. Especially when the back of the journey had been broken with a third try nailed on inside two minutes of the second half.
Having been a country mile ahead of their opponents in the first 40 minutes, Leinster slipped off the pace after the break. It wasn't as if they left a load of near misses behind them, rather they spent most of the second 40 minutes in their own half. Quite a shift from what we had witnessed in the first period.
To concede 11 penalties in a match where initially you look in a different class to your opponents suggests something fundamental went wrong.
It's not that far of a spin from Belfast to Dublin but for half this game Ulster looked like they had taken the scenic route. And maybe had a few refreshments along the way. They had a handful of players struggling badly to get into the game, and against a home team playing with great pace and accuracy that was something they couldn't afford.
Ruan Pienaar was in that group. Missing his two shots on goal in the first half - the second was shanked so badly it drew howls from the small band of travelling fans - summed up his game.
Outside him Stuart McCloskey was well removed from his best form, and further out Tommy Bowe put down two try-scoring chances under virtually no pressure.
In the blue corner there was hot competition to get noticed, and man-of-the-match Rory O'Loughlin did himself no harm. With Garry Ringrose about the place, O'Loughlin is likely to see game time on the wing rather than at centre. And while that might not be his first choice at least he has the gas to make it look like it is.
His stunning finish on seven minutes had the RDS crowd on their feet in appreciation. The starter play which brought him into midfield off a lineout was designed to get Leinster in behind the Ulster defence and to see what developed from there. Instead he burned a handful of men in white for a brilliant try, converted by Isa Nacewa.
Even when he got stuff wrong it worked out ok. Later in the half he regathered his own blocked clearance kick which soon led to Seán O'Brien being put clear down the wing. Had the flanker given it immediately to O'Loughlin, it would have been better; instead he hung on too long and trundled into contact.
The contest was over pretty much by the interval by which point Leinster were 17-0 clear. In between Bowe's two spills Nacewa kicked a penalty after McCloskey was done for a high tackle on Seán Cronin. With seven minutes to the break Leinster completed another perfect play from training pitch to match day, when Luke McGrath was put through a hole at the front of a lineout where Ulster had been duped into marking the tail. McGrath made it home untouched from outside the 22 with Nacewa again adding the extras.
When O'Loughlin got over for his second touchdown, inside two minutes of the second half, after a lovely little stab through a gap from Ross Byrne, you could imagine a horde of Ulster fans watching on television, glad they hadn't stirred out of the house.
Meantime, their Leinster counterparts were settling in, waiting for the bonus point to unfold. With three tries sorted and most of the second half still to play it had the look of a formality about it. But Ulster dominated territory for most of the half, facilitated by a home side who literally lost their touch.
Ulster's only reward for all their effort was a late try to Charles Piutau. It didn't give them any material benefit, rather it made the scoreline look a bit better. A former Ireland coach once claimed - with a straight face - that his team had won the second half in a game where they were beaten out the gate. Ulster might identify with that.
Scorers - Leinster: O'Loughlin (2), McGrath tries; Nacewa 2 cons, pen. Ulster: Piutau try, Pienaar con.
Leinster: I Nacewa; A Byrne (A Porter 57; J Loughman 65), G Ringrose, N Reid, R O'Loughlin (Z Kirchner 65); R Byrne (T Daly 73), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 60); J McGrath (yc 57-67), S Cronin (R Strauss 60), M Bent (J Loughman 66), D Toner, H Triggs (M Kearney 66), S O'Brien (J Conan 69), J Heaslip, J van der Flier.
Ulster: C Piutau; A Trimble (L Ludik 59), D Cave, S McCloskey, T Bowe (J Stockdale 65); R Pienaar, P Marshall (B Herron 73); A Warwick (C Black 62), R Herring (capt) (J Andrew 28), R Ah You (J Simpson 48), K Treadwell, F van der Merwe (P Browne 73), C Ross, R Wilson (C Henry 54), S Reidy.
Referee: D Jones (Wales)
Sunday Indo Sport