Schmidt gets perfect send-off as Leinster claim Rabo title in thriller
Published 25/05/2013 | 19:08
Leinster put past disappointments behind them to scoop an elusive RaboDirect PRO12 title in head coach Joe Schmidt's last game in charge.
Jonathan Sexton signed off before the Lions tour with 14 points as his home province were crowned champions for the first time since 2008, ending a run of three successive league final losses.
New Zealander Schmidt, who will take over the Ireland job later this year, bowed out with a much-prized domestic and European double - eight days on from his side's Amlin Challenge Cup success.
A resilient Ulster certainly put it up to them in this all-Irish decider, with their South African star Ruan Pienaar kicking immaculately in an 18-point haul.
But tries in each half from back rowers Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, allied to some rock solid defending, got Leinster over the finish line.
Sexton booted three penalties after converting Jennings' early try as Leinster - without late withdrawal Rob Kearney, who had a tight hamstring - ended a hugely physical first half with a 16-6 lead.
Despite leaking a succession of penalties, particularly at the breakdown, the Ulstermen remained in the hunt thanks to Pienaar's opening two kicks.
The place-kicking battle continued after yellow cards for Robbie Diack and Isa Nacewa - in his final professional match - with Pienaar drawing Ulster back to within four points.
However, Heaslip's try entering the final quarter proved to be enough to seal it in favour of the men in blue.
Table toppers Ulster designated the RDS as their home venue for the league final - with Ravenhill not meeting the minimum 18,000-capacity mark - and they wryly renamed the Dublin venue 'OurDS'.
Ulster leaked four penalties in the opening seven minutes as Leinster raced into an early 10-0 lead, Sexton converting man of the match Jennings' try and adding a straightforward penalty.
Mark Anscombe's men were too eager at the breakdown, the opening penalty offering Sexton a chance to find the right corner, and from the ensuing lineout a well-supported Jennings was mauled over.
Sexton slotted the conversion and then clipped over a penalty from just outside the 22, with Ulster growing increasingly frustrated by some of referee John Lacey's calls.
They showed their set-piece strength after Nacewa was charged down and Isaac Boss had to concede a five-metre scrum. Johann Muller's pack hunted for a penalty try but Leinster just about survived.
Tommy Bowe hurtled through midfield soon after, linking with Paddy Jackson, and a raid out to the right almost led to a Diack try - Sexton and company doing just enough to hold him up.
Ulster kept knocking on the door and deservedly got off the mark in the 24th minute, Pienaar curling a penalty over after a robust Nick Williams charge.
On the half hour, Ulster had a let-off when Sexton missed a kickable penalty awarded for Chris Henry interfering with Boss at a ruck.
It was wholehearted stuff, the derby nature of the final leading to a suffocating breakdown area and some frantic spells of possession.
Pienaar's second three-pointer was sandwiched by two more Sexton strikes, the Racing Metro signing's final effort coming as the match officials missed a clear off-the-ball infringement on John Afoa.
Worse followed for the vocal Ulster support when flanker Diack saw yellow for another ruck offence, the resulting penalty seeing Sexton strengthen Leinster's advantage.
However, Ulster reacted smartly and made serious headway approaching the hour mark. A smashing break from Paddy Jackson led to Nacewa being sin-binned for pulling back the young Ireland international by his collar.
Pienaar took centre stage, quickly adding three points to Ulster's tally and the Springbok converted two more penalties - the first after a great kick chase by Bowe - to suddenly make it 19-15.
Leinster, though, struck a killer blow after Sexton found a terrific touch from a penalty. The ball was worked infield through patient phases and Heaslip, with the support of Devin Toner, powered over from close range.
Sexton was unable to convert and a monster effort from the talismanic Pienaar brought Ulster back to within a converted try with just 10 nervy minutes left.
But unlike a year ago against the Ospreys, Leinster did not falter late on and a second piece of silverware for the season was theirs.