Blues spoil the party as Ulster edge into last four
Ulster 20 Leinster 22
Ulster must be considering knocking down this new stand they've built given the luck it's bringing them.
For the second time in four weeks, a first-quarter red card left them with an uphill battle against quality opponents. For the second time, the 14 men rallied and came up just two points short.
This one won't hurt as bad. The losing bonus point edged them into the Pro12 play-offs where they are likely to meet Leinster again in two weeks' time unless they can beat Munster next weekend or the champions slip up against Edinburgh.
English referee Luke Pearce was the centre of attention, sending Tom Court off after 16 minutes and then sin-binning Rob Kearney and Rhys Ruddock before half-time.
The hoary old chestnuts of the tip-tackle, high tackle and taking the man in the air rose their heads, with each decision based on the officials' interpretations.
On another night, things could have been very different.
The referee shouldn't hog the focus, however, with a number of players laying down markers ahead of the summer tour to Argentina. In particular, Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson had strong showings, while Ian Madigan had a night to forget.
In front of legends like Jack Kyle and Syd Millar, Johann Muller bid farewell to Ravenhill on its official re-opening, as did Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll who won't have such fond memories.
Top of the table, Leinster can secure a home path to the final with a win next weekend, but they'll need to improve on this sloppy outing to win the competition.
They started well, with a manic first half beginning with a highly charged Ulster conceding a slew of penalties, two of which Madigan stuck over; he missed another.
As expected, Leinster were getting the edge at scrum-time where Cian Healy had Andrew Warwick in all sorts of trouble, but such mundane issues faded quickly into the background when Devin Toner carried the ball into Rob Herring and Court.
The duo lifted the big second-row into the air and Herring lost his grip as Toner's legs went above his hips, but Court – making his final appearance here – kept driving through the tackle and the Leinster man hurtled neck first into the turf.
Pearce took a long look at the replays and consulted with television match official Dermot Molony before taking out his red card to the dismay of the home faithful whose sense of deja vu soon turned to injustice.
It looked the correct call, however, as Leinster upped the pace but Payne stopped Madigan short and Henderson brilliantly held Shane Jennings up over the line. The game turned back in Ulster's favour when the referee called advantage over for a Leinster penalty under the posts, despite the visitors going 20 metres backwards.
Ulster cleared and then Madigan attempted a too-clever chip from the edge of his '22', which Jackson blocked, collected and raced past Isaac Boss. Rob Kearney came across, but his last-ditch tackle was high as the fly-half touched down.
He was sent to the bin, but the try stood and Jackson missed the conversion. The officials were at the centre of the action again minutes later when Zane Kirchner sent a kick skywards, bumped into Ruddock as Jackson collected in the air and between them they took him out.
Memories of Payne's red card flashed in front of an increasingly furious Ulster faithful, but Pearce opted to sin-bin the flanker. It could have gone either way, it could have been red, but it was suddenly 14 on 13 for nine minutes and a big opportunity for the hosts.
They wouldn't take it. Jackson sent a penalty over but Madigan cancelled it out before missing two kicks after half-time.
Leinster's inaccuracy was costing them, a poor Gordon D'Arcy pass killed a certain try for Dave Kearney.
Madigan got his radar back working with a penalty after a collapsed lineout maul but Jackson pulled it back to within a point when Leinster committed the same offence.
After fighting so hard, Mark Anscombe's side will be furious with the soft try they conceded to allow Leinster to assume full control.
They'll argue that Bowe was taken out in the air by Kirchner, but Paul Marshall's attempted tackle on Shane Jennings was terrible as the flanker brushed past to score.
Madigan converted and Matt O'Connor rolled on his all-international front-row bench along with Jimmy Gopperth to close things out with 15 minutes to go.
That should have been that, but Darren Cave scythed the defence open before Jennings failed to release in the tackle and Jackson brought the gap back to five.
After Ruddock did well to force a choke tackle on Dan Tuohy, Mike Ross forced a penalty which Gopperth converted to give his side some breathing space, but another collapsed maul allowed Jackson to narrow the deficit again with eight minutes remaining.
He made it a two-point game five minutes later as the 14 men, led by Henderson and Chris Henry, kept on coming and D'Arcy didn't roll away at the tackle.
That ensured they got the bonus point they needed to get into the play-offs, but as Leinster professionally closed it out with a series of close-in carries before Boss kicked it dead, Ulster couldn't get the win to mark the new stadium's opening.
Ulster – R Andrew; A Trimble, J Payne, L Marshall (D Cave 56), T Bowe; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Herring, A Warwick (A Macklin 71); J Muller (capt) (D Tuohy 62), I Henderson; R Wilson (N Williams 67), C Henry, N Williams (C Black 19).
Leinster – R Kearney; Z Kirchner, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Kearney; I Madigan (J Gopperth 65), I Boss; C Healy (J McGrath 65), S Cronin (R Strauss 65), M Moore (M Ross 65); D Toner (L Cullen 58), M McCarthy; R Ruddock (J Murphy 71), S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).
Referee– L Pearce (RFU).