Home hat-trick sets up Leinster for European tilt
Leinster 38 Ulster 7
It hasn't happened overnight, but rarely in the history of Irish rugby has the combined might of the 12 counties of Leinster loomed so large over the other three provinces.
This generation has won nothing yet, but they appear primed for a dominant era of success after a Christmas period in which they never picked their strongest team, coped without seven Ireland internationals and their rested captain and beat their three neighbours, who were close to full-strength, for the derbies.
Saturday's six-tries-to-one win over Ulster was the cherry on top for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, whose focus now turns to Europe and the visit of Glasgow Warriors to Ballsbridge on Sunday.
Ahead of the three interpro games in 11 days they had a strategic plan to deploy their resources to best effect, but now they face an altogether tougher challenge in picking the best team for their decisive Champions Cup games.
They've an eight-day turnaround and it's probably for the best because they'll probably need an entire day trying to pick a back three from Jordan Larmour, Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa, Fergus McFadden, James Lowe, Barry Daly, Adam Byrne, Rory O'Loughlin and Dave Kearney. The latter trio have been struggling with injuries, but could be fit this week.
It's worth repeating that they used 37 players during their wins over Munster, Connacht and Ulster and that didn't include Cian Healy, who was suspended, injured sextet Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Dave Kearney, Joey Carbery and Adam Byrne, and their captain Isa Nacewa, who was given the period off.
Their strength in depth is unparalleled and they look by far and away the best prospect of any Irish team reaching the Champions Cup final in Bilbao on May 12.
This win put distance between them and the chasing pack in Conference B, a division that is now a straight shoot-out between Leinster and champions Scarlets, who are two points ahead after 13 games. What a pity they meet in the midst of the Six Nations.
Despite an expected slew of Ireland call-ups, Leinster look well able to manage that period.
Although there was a dip in performance between the Ulster and Munster games as they struggled against Connacht, they still managed a hat-trick of wins.
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Johnny Sexton watched from the bench as Ross Byrne guided his team around well, Tadhg Furlong came off at half-time with a head injury and Andrew Porter came on and won a scrum penalty before setting off on a sensational rampage to set up Fergus McFadden's second try. Quality permeates throughout their squad.
"Ultimately, they're a class act," defeated coach Les Kiss said.
"They have exceptional depth, they've rotated, set themselves up in both competitions nicely. They shipped a few injuries which may be tough, but they've the depth to cover it."
Kiss would dispute that the winning margin accurately reflects where the two teams are at, believing that Ulster's errors played into Leinster's hands.
"If you're going to give the ball that much to an opposition who'll make you work hard to get it back, then you're not going to survive against a good team," he said.
"We talked about that error rate on both sides of the ball and that it wasn't good enough. We couldn't sustain pressure and unfortunately Leinster really made us pay.
"I don't think they're that much better than us. It's a reflection of the inconsistency that we showed that gave the opposition a chance to hurt us. We defended well for periods, but then they turn us over and have scored three phases later. It's a spiral.
"It's not ideal and it's hurting us. To be that inconsistent, it's not ideal that's for sure. That's the nature of what we're looking at at the minute. We don't have a constant, dependable style of rugby that we can rely on. We have a chance next week to respond."
The brilliant Larmour was Leinster's punisher-in-chief, scoring two tries and having a hand in two more as he lit up a bitterly cold RDS.
He opened the scoring on six minutes, laid on the second for Daly after 15 and was unlucky not to have had a second either side of half-time - Iain Henderson managed to prevent him from grounding without giving away a penalty on the stroke of the break, while George Clancy disallowed an effort after the restart for an offside against Jamison Gibson-Park.
Larmour played a role in McFadden's first try, before Porter's rampage helped set-up his second and Larmour made his a brace to put the result beyond doubt.
Jacob Stockdale endured a torrid evening, but did manage a consolation score before Sexton completed the rout with his side's sixth try.
By then, their focus had already begun switching to Glasgow.
"We are confident and that's important, but we're not over-confident. We want to make sure that we get the prep right this week going into this big game," Scott Fardy said.
"These weeks are quickly forgotten if you don't come up with a big result at home in front of a big crowd next Sunday. We've got to make sure we're really preparing well and getting everything in order leading into a big couple of weeks in Europe."
Leinster: J Larmour; F McFadden, G Ringrose (N Reid 59), R Henshaw, B Daly; R Byrne (J Sexton 58), J Gibson-Park (N McCarthy 66); J McGrath (capt) (E Byrne 58), J Tracy (S Cronin 27), T Furlong (A Porter h-t); D Toner (M Kearney 66), S Fardy; Josh Murphy, Jordi Murphy, Jack Conan (M Deegan 61)
Ulster: C Piutau (T Bowe 55); A Trimble, D Cave, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano (J McPhillips 55), J Stewart (J Cooney 55); C Black (K McCall 61), R Best (capt) (R Herring 65), R Ah You (W Herbst 50-74); P Browne (A O'Connor 55), I Henderson; M Rea, S Reidy (N Timoney 57), J Deysel.
Ref - G Clancy (IRFU)