'I have enjoyed every bit of it'
Departing coach Schmidt hails special victory as Leinster's enduring excellence earns reward
A VICTORY so sweet for Leinster that it left an aftertaste more succulent than honey climaxed a dramatic contest at the RDS.
It was a victory they so richly deserved when they out-performed an Ulster side who contributed handsomely to what was a magnificently enjoyable final.
Leinster also merited the victory for their enduring excellence. Saturday night was their fourth successive final.
It was their first win – "it's three years on since I arrived here, I'm six years older," quipped Joe Schmidt – and it surely tastes all the sweeter for the arduous journey the club had to endure.
"The Rabo is a fantastic competition and it's great to finally have the trophy in our changing room," added Schmidt.
"It was nerve-wracking, especially in the last quarter when we kept giving Ulster the ball back. But we defended well. Ulster deserve a lot of credit. They came at us, but we showed a lot about ourselves by winning out.
"I'm fatigued and more than a little worn-out, but it will be great to look back on this during the summer. And on the three years in general because I have enjoyed every bit of it," Schmidt added.
That Leinster's victory was achieved with a gorgeous touch of élan is probably the best parting gift the players could have proffered their departing coach, for Schmidt has contributed magnificently to their successes over the three years of his tenure.
"I can't believe it's three-and-a-half years ago that I met Joe in a hotel in Dublin for a chat after he got the job," recalled Leo Cullen.
"It's flown by. At that first meeting I really felt that Joe was the man for the job. We were really excited about what we thought he could bring to the party and it's been great. The three years have been amazing."
On Saturday Leinster countered Ulster's power game with a subtlety that emphasised the outrageous skill in their team. They also mixed their greater experience with a very mature appreciation of what was needed to prevail.
They signalled their intent very early on. When presented with a three-point opportunity barely three minutes into the game Jonathan Sexton didn't even glance towards the sticks and instead sent the ball spiralling down the side line.
It was a move designed to shake Ulster's confidence. It worked. Richardt Strauss threw to Cullen and the first rolling maul of the evening steam-rolled over the Ulster defence with Shane Jennings touching down.
When Sexton added the extras and then tacked on another three points on seven minutes, you began to worry about Ulster's ability to keep the game entertaining as Leinster were threatening to run amok.
They refused to be cowed, however, and, to their credit, they kept Leinster in sight right until the final whistle.
Ultimately, it was their failure to score a try that was the decisive factor. They showed their potential on a few occasions and were unlucky not to get the touch-down when Robbie Diack succeeded in crashing over the line in the 18th minute, only to be held up by the marvellous Jonathan Sexton.
Try as they might, Ulster could not break down Leinster's firewall of a defence.
The Blues were impressively balanced in their organisation, consistently alert and resourceful when danger threatened and confident when coping with the tension of Ulster's late surge.
Ulster, who had beaten Leinster twice this season, were unable to impact upon Leinster's sense of security. The hang-dog demeanour of Ulster's back-row forwards illustrated that.
All three trudged off the field with leaden legs as the effort of the 80-minute battle took its toll. Leinster's trio of Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip and Kevin McLaughlin skipped around the field with the energy of giddy schoolboys let out for summer after the trophy presentation.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe was generous in his praise of Leinster and was at pains to emphasise that the better team won, although he did take gentle issue with some of the decisions of referee John Lacey.
"John is a competent referee. I would like to see some of the calls again, however. To my mind the scrum-half is not allowed to touch anyone in the scrum, but I thought Isaac Boss had a good grope at Nick Williams throughout the game," said Anscombe.
"For a showcase final I think the most experienced referee who is available should do the job."
It was a less-than-subtle suggestion that Anscombe took issue with some of the decisions that went against his side. He had cause on some occasions, not least the incident when Boss tackled Williams before the No 8 had the ball in his hands.
But, in truth, Lacey had nothing to do with the final result.
Leinster were the better team and it showed on the scoreboard. The smooth and razor-sharp way the ball was put through hands for Heaslip's try after 63 minutes was conclusive. Backs and forwards contributed to the move and, with Boss ensuring the pace of the attack was maintained, Ulster were unable to resist.
Contrast that with the vice-like grip Leinster maintained on Ulster's attack. Paddy Jackson made one scything run through the heart of the Leinster defence that almost yielded results and Tommy Bowe was always a threat, but Ulster lacked the dynamism of the Leinster attack.
This was evident in the final 12 minutes when they were just six points adrift, but could not find the inspiration to break them down.
It was always likely to be Leinster's night. The memory of three lost finals combined with the emotion of bidding farewell to Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Schmidt was always likely to fuel their challenge.
Leinster won because they were deserving of success, but Ulster's role must not be overlooked. It does take two teams to ensure a classic final –and this was a classic final.
Leinster – I Nacewa (yc 47-57); F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, I Madigan, A Conway; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy (J McGrath 77), R Strauss, M Ross (J Hagan 75), L Cullen (capt), D Toner (Q Roux 73), K McLaughlin, J Heaslip, S Jennings
Ulster – J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding (M Allen 65), T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court (C Black 73), R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, R Diack (45-55; I Henderson 65), N Williams, C Henry.
REF – J Lacey (IRFU).