Black and Blues outclass Ulster
Leinster count cost of victory as injuries pile up
Leinster 18 Ulster 3
A NERVY night for Leinster at the RDS.
Not because they were ever in any real danger of losing this Magners League semi-final to Ulster (for all the visitors' efforts, Leinster comfortably had their measure), but because of the worries surrounding the welfare of their players ahead of next weekend's Heineken Cup decider.
Chief among them was Brian O'Driscoll, who was having a magnificent match until picking up a knee injury just before half-time and did not reappear for the second period.
But, as well as the Ireland captain, there were concerns over props Mike Ross and Cian Healy, scrum-half Isaac Boss, hooker Richardt Strauss and flanker Sean O'Brien.
The hope is that those withdrawals were done on a safety-first basis and the extra day to prepare for Northampton (who face Leicester in the English Premiership semi-final today) will be gratefully received.
There was some excellent news to go with the concerns, however. When Leinster were good they were very, very good -- helped by the fact that when Ulster were bad they were horrid -- and there will be plenty for Saints coach Jim Mallinder to fret over when he views the DVD.
And then there was the sparkling return to form of Luke Fitzgerald. The winger had a ropey first-half in keeping with his sub-par 2011, but in the second period he was a man transformed, crowning his rediscovered confidence with a wonderful try that ended any lingering Ulster aspirations. A huge boon for Leinster over the next two weeks and for Ireland further on.
Heaslip spilled the kick-off, but any Ulster hopes that next week's assignment would manifest in a nervous Leinster display were instantly dispelled as the No 8 quickly regathered and became heavily involved, together with Isaac Boss, Gordon D'Arcy, Cian Healy and, especially, O'Driscoll to set up a Sexton penalty after four minutes.
O'Driscoll kept up his central role as the home side kept the squeeze on and Fergus McFadden continued from his stellar showing last week with a remarkable surge that set Strauss haring up the middle on a weaving run that would have ended up with a try under the posts had Fitzgerald not overrun the pass.
Ulster couldn't get a look-in, not helped by some basic handling errors and forward passes brought about by over-eagerness, but after 21 minutes were still only 3-0 down, Sexton missing a difficult penalty attempt from just beyond half-way.
Such a misleading scoreline could not survive and, after a mesmerising Leinster attack involving wonderful work from Strauss, Heaslip and sublime handling and running from O'Driscoll, Leinster set up position five yards out.
Opting for a scrum rather than take three points from the penalty, they sucked in defenders and then spread right to give McFadden a stroll-over in the right-hand corner, with the wind foiling Sexton's conversion.
When Ulster did manage to string some phases together, Leinster were utterly untroubled and when they moved it themselves, continued to dazzle -- another out of the hand pass by O'Driscoll bringing the crowd to its feet.
With the first-half clock ticking down, Brian McLaughlin's side finally got a scoring position, five metres out after a sweet kick from Adam D'Arcy led to an Ulster throw on Leinster's '22,' only for Leo Cullen to read Rory Best's intentions and scoop the throw. Chance gone.
There was still time for O'Driscoll to sustain a worrying knock and for Healsip to set off on a trademark 45-metre surge, which looked destined to end in a score for O'Brien, only for Ruan Pienaar to intervene illegally, allowing Leinster to make it 11-0 at the break.
O'Driscoll did not reappear, David Kearney coming on to the right wing and McFadden switching to the centre. The pattern of the game was unchanged -- Ulster huffing and puffing, while Leinster patiently made their tackles and waited for mistake-induced turnovers to relaunch their own offensives.
Ulster needed to score next to have any chance and, with Robbie Diack carrying strongly, won a penalty 46-metres straight out, but Ian Humphreys could not convert.
To be fair to the visitors, they kept running at the Heineken Cup finalists, possibly hoping that Leinster's concentration would slip as the game wore on. Precaution began to weigh heavy on Leinster minds as Sexton was withdrawn for Ian Madigan and Strauss departed for Jason Harris-Wright (who had a lively 25 minutes) after appearing to take a heavy knock to a leg. Healy, who had been limping, followed a few minutes later, and was replaced by Henke van der Merwe.
Pienaar went for what looked an improbable penalty kick nearly 10 metres inside his own half to get his team on the scoreboard with 20 minutes left and launched a monstrous effort that was still going strong when it cleared the cross-bar for 11-3.
At this stage, the Leinster supporters were looking for a game-killing score and the final whistle, as every point of contact ended with fingers crossed to ward off further injury scares.
They got the coup de grace they craved, good build-up work from Stan Wright, Heaslip and the increasingly impressive Madigan, setting Fitzgerald free and he rounded off his superb second-half with an exquisitely taken score.
McFadden knocked over the extras for 18-3 and it was job done. Ulster were left to reflect on a season that has moved them encouragingly up the ladder with several rungs still to go, while Leinster kept their double tilt alive and face a Magners League final against Munster or the Ospreys in a fortnight.
Now, the nervous wait for medical updates begins.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (D Kearney 40), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 55), I Boss (E Reddan 31); C Healy (H van der Merwe 62), R Strauss (J Harris-Wright 55), M Ross (S Wright 33); L Cullen (capt, D Toner 72), N Hines; S O'Brien (K McLaughlin 72), S Jennings, J Heaslip.
ULSTER -- A D'Arcy; C Gilroy, D Cave, N Spence, S Danielli (C Gaston 73); I Humphreys (P Marshall 57), R Pienaar; T Court (P McAllister 73), R Best (capt, A Kyriacou 73), D Fitzpatrick (J Cronin 41); J Muller, T Barker (N McComb 73); P Wannenburg, C Henry, R Diack.
REF -- G Clancy (IRFU)