Conan shines as Leinster get back to their winning ways
Leinster 24 Ulster 11
Not the worst way to start the New Year: a full house at the RDS for a full-on derby, with enough quality to keep everyone interested until the last few minutes by which time it was clear that Ulster, despite having made a big contribution to a decent game, would get nothing out of it.
This was a battle of the needy: two sides under pressure for performances almost as much as points. Leinster were the clear winners on both fronts with a result that takes them back into the top four of the Pro12, and, importantly, sent their fans home happy.
"He took a bang on the AC but it shouldn't be significant," O'Connor said immediately after the game. "It's a rarity for Heaslip to leave the scene prematurely, let alone miss a game, so history is in his favour, but we'll see how it works out after he has been scanned."
Tommy Bowe also went off early for Ulster with what appeared to be a dead leg. As it happened, the man who took over at eight from Heaslip - Jack Conan moved over from blindside with Josh van der Flier coming off the bench - went on to pick up the man of the match award.
"He's a very good guy to work with because he works hard and he's very diligent in how he goes about his week," assistant coach Leo Cullen said afterwards. "I'm delighted - I had a chat to him during the week and it's just about imposing himself now because he's had a taste for it now over the last couple of months in the team. He's had plenty of opportunities and it's about pushing on to the next level for him."
It was a good call, though there were a few contenders for best player. If Schmidt is concerned about Heaslip then at least he got more good news with the performance of Luke Fitzgerald at 13. And the return of Fergus McFadden - one of the most effective pound-for-pound players on the circuit - was successful, adding to what is a small army of contenders to fill Ireland's 14 and 11 shirts for the Six Nations opener against Italy next month.
It wasn't all gloom for Ulster either. Paddy Jackson has struggled this season and while he finished the game nursing what looked like a sore shoulder, he played well, as did Dan Tuohy - despite running foul of referee Marius Mitrea. Indeed the Ulster second-row could easily have seen red having been binned in the first half and then penalised on his own line at a critical point in the second.
It was the last play of the first half that Ulster lost Tuohy for launching himself off his feet at Isaac Boss at a ruck 20 metres from the Ulster line. It would open up the game which finished 9-6 at the break, with Ian Madigan and Ruan Pienaar three from three and two from three respectively to that point. If Darren Cave had been lucky not to concede a card for an offence even closer to their line a good while earlier, Mitrea wasn't long in going for his pocket this time.
While Ulster were unhappy about turning over three points down then their mood wouldn't have been lightened by facing the first 10 minutes of the second half without the second-row who had been having a fine game.
Having conceded seven penalties (to Leinster's five) in the first half, Neil Doak's concern would have been, with a man down, getting further on the wrong side of the ref. Sure enough, two minutes into the second period Ulster found themselves short-staffed in their left-hand corner when Craig Gilroy went offside to plug the gap. For some reason he wasn't carded - it was far more cynical than Tuohy's offence - but from the penalty Ian Madigan scored direct. He shaped to kick to the corner only to tap and go, surviving the combined tackles of Roger Wilson and Callum Black.
His own conversion put Leinster 16-6 in front, but within a few minutes that had been cut to five points when Wiehann Herbst, with confirmation needed from the TMO, scored after a bout of pressure that hadn't looked that likely to deliver. But it did, and the game was on again.
It stayed that way until the closing stages when Leinster finally looked like they were well ahead all over the field. They had a try by replacement Jimmy Gopperth knocked back by the TMO, but in the last minute Luke McGrath did well to open the door for Conan. The touchdown came a matter of seconds after the back-rower had been announced as man of the match.
Good timing from him, and not too bad from his team either.
Scorers - Leinster: J Conan try; I Madigan try, 4 pens, con; Ulster: W Herbst try; R Pienaar 2 pens.
Leinster: Z Kirchner (J Gopperth 66); F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, G D'Arcy (B Te'o 77), D Kearney; I Madigan, I Boss (L McGrath 69); J McGrath (M Bent 72), R Strauss (S Cronin 56), M Ross (T Furlong 56), D Toner, M McCarthy (K Douglas 61), J Conan, J Heaslip (J van der Flier 28), J Murphy.
Ulster: P Nelson; T Bowe (L Marshall 49), D Cave, S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 76); C Black (A Warwick 69), R Best (capt) (R Herring 76), W Herbst (B Ross 69), D Tuohy (yc 40), F van der Merwe (A O'Connor 69), R Diack, R Wilson, C Ross (S Reidy 65).
Referee: M Mitrea (Italy)
Sunday Indo Sport