Sean O'Brien injury mars Leinster's derby victory over Ulster
Leinster 19 Ulster 6
Sean O’Brien is a major doubt for Ireland’s opening Six Nations games against Scotland and Wales.
O’Brien, who remains a target for a host of French clubs, was helped from the field in the second-half of his latest comeback from injury and a suspected dislocated shoulder may also hinder the potential of a move overseas for the injury-plagued back-row.
All of which overshadowed Leinster’s victory, ending a run of two successive defeats with a facile against Ulster to leapfrog their Irish rivals into second place in the RaboDirect Pro12.
It was a more of a festive turkey than a Christmas cracker but the sold out RDS faithful will not have cared one whit.
Luke Fitzgerald provided the game’s only real sprinkling of class throughout and it was no coincidence that he helped create the game’s only try, finished by Jordi Murphy in the 37th minute.
Out-half Jimmy Gopperth kicked the rest of the scores against the ill-disciplined visitors, who slipped to their eighth defeat in nine league visits to Dublin.
Ulster were afforded the first scoring opportunity when Murphy was penalised at the first bout of phased play, Paddy Jackson securing the early lead but Jimmy Gopperth replied almost immediately from the restart to level matters.
Leinster produced the first real fireworks; Fitzgerald’s enterprising chip and chase down the wing was followed by an even more elaborate scoop of the grounded ball to the onrushing Brendan Macken.
The move deserved some reward; several phases later, via an Ulster penalty, Gopperth wasn’t able to provide it. His side remained in the ascendant, with Rhys Ruddock and Sean O’Brien prominently carrying while the young midfield pair shimmied effectively.
Inevitably, Gopperth was provided with another chance, and with a slightly easier effort into the wind, he skewed the effort alarmingly wide to the right of the sticks.
A delicious midfield break from Noel Reid, jinking so easily past Paddy Jackson after a lost lineout, should have earned more points but Leinster were pinged a second successive time at the breakdown, guilty of not committing enough numbers yet again.
The theme continued; Leinster attacking, Ulster thieving and the tale went the full 180 degrees when Jackson secured a long-range kick for an unlikely 6-3 lead in the 34th minute.
Ulster’s luck ran out soon; Sean Doyle was binned and Leinster launched another assault by kicking the resultant penalty to touch. This time they made no mistake, although Leo Cullen made a minor one with a slapped down take.
No matter, Luke Fitzgerald punched a huge hole in the Ulster defence and, although running towards touch, offloaded beautifully for Jordi Murphy to scamper home for the game’s opening try.
In the absence of Jamie Heaslip and Brian O’Driscoll, this fair-haired duo lessened the lament for absent friends as Gopperth converted from the sideline for a 10-6 half-time lead.
Doyle’s return after the break failed to stem the tide; an Ulster offside gave Gopperth another penalty chance in the 50th minute which he converted with a little more assuredness than previous efforts.
He added another couple either side of the hour mark but Leinster fans were now more concerned about the long-term health of O’Brien rather than the 19-6 lead his side had now inexorably acquired.
Leinster: Z Kirchner; D Kearney, B Macken, N Reid (I Madigan 67), L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss (L McGrath 79); J O'Connell (J McGrath 60), A Dundon (J Tracy 68), M Moore (M Ross 70); L Cullen capt (T Denton 73), M McCarthy; R Ruddock, S O'Brien (D Ryan 55), J Murphy.
Ulster: R Andrew (J Payne 51); A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall (M Allen 58), C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall (R Pienaar 51); C Black (T Court 59), R Herring, D Fitzpatrick (R Lutton 73); L Stevenson (N McComb 71), D Tuohy; R Diack (capt), S Doyle (M McComish 68), R Wilson.
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU).