Van der Flier grabs chance to shake up pecking order
Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30
After a humbling fortnight in Europe, these two teams came to the RDS in search of some light relief and, while there was no redemption in an 8-3 win for the superior home team, there were at least some smiles on Leinster faces.
Les Kiss and his team returned up the M1 knowing their problems run deeper than their neighbours, whose 2016/17 European campaign can effectively begin now as they look to secure a higher seeding through the Guinness Pro12.
They should have been far more comfortable, but there were improvements for Leo Cullen to digest after a sobering couple of weeks.
While his team look devoid of ideas in the defeat to Wasps and the loss to Bath represented a systems failure in the scrum, last night they created chances to put Ulster to bed but failed to take them.
Confidence is perhaps an issue for both teams in the wake of World Cup disappointment and European woes, but there were signs of life in blue; yet again the brightest spark was the man in the red scrum-cap, Josh van der Flier.
The UCD openside scored a try in defeat to Bath off the bench, and this was a performance of real substance that marked him out as a player who will make life awkward for the internationals watching on from the Anglesea Stand.
He carried hard, tackled harder and was a menace at the breakdown and, while the excellent Luke Fitzgerald won man of the match, it was the No7 who was the influential figure in the game.
Interprovincial derbies are always filled with sub-plots and, in the aftermath of the World Cup, the presence of Ireland's three out-halves out on the pitch from the start gave us a chance to assess their credentials.
Ian Madigan, who is edging close to the RDS exit door, was prominent early on and Paddy Jackson showed some lovely touches, but it was Johnny Sexton who re-emphasised his place at the top of the tree.
This was not a perfect outing from Ireland's first-choice No 10, but it was an improvement on his recent efforts in Europe. Against Wasps, his confidence looked to seep from him as the game went on, while Bath's dominance at scrum time denied him any opportunity to be the match's dominant force.
Even his friend and former colleague Brian O'Driscoll conceded last night that the fly-half looked low on confidence.
"Johnny hasn't been at his best since he's come back," the ex-Ireland captain said on Newstalk. "Certainly in the Wasps game, he made some uncharacteristic errors you would never expect.
"Particularly, multiple kicks out on the full, or that kick to the corner when Leinster needed to put some pressure on and he kicked it dead; these things aren't very Johnny-esque. He's probably struggling a little bit for form, but he just needs to play his way into it."
Platform helps. Last night, Leinster's pack looked like eight wronged men as they did a number on an Ulster scrum that had also struggled against English opposition when they were outclassed by Saracens in Belfast a week earlier.
That allowed the Lion to thrive and his interactions with Fitzgerald, who found plenty of room in the wide channels, showed the range to Sexton's game.
There was a skip pass, a cross-kick and a beautiful transfer before the tackle that all allowed the winger time and space and, ultimately, the latter led to the game's first try as the forwards took advantage of field position to maul over.
The positive for Leinster was that they created plenty of chances, an improvement on the Wasps win when they owned the ball but didn't look like they knew what to do with it.
This week's problem was their inability to take the opportunities they created.
In the first half, Jack McGrath was held up over the line, while the same thing happened to Van der Flier after half-time. The worst piece of butchery came from Ben Te'o, who merely had to catch Sexton's pass and fall over the line, but somehow contrived to knock-on.
They weren't to need another try, however, as playing into the wind Ulster never looked like adding to Jackson's 14th-minute penalty. Neither side look ready to return to Europe, and time is not on their side. Leinster can at least take some solace.