Ireland blow as O'Brien set to miss Six Nations
Not quite the contest we had been hoping for, and certainly not the news Joe Schmidt wanted with Seán O'Brien being helped off with a dislocated shoulder in the second half of Leinster's win before a full house at the RDS.
Leinster coach Matt O'Connor described it as a "significant bang." He was talking about the blow to O'Brien, not Schmidt, but with Scotland due in Lansdowne Road on February 2 -- the Six Nations programme concludes on March 15 in Paris -- the Ireland coach will feel a bit stunned himself.
O'Brien will be scanned today after which a prognosis will be made but unless he is extraordinarily lucky then the Championship will probably be a write off for him. Ulster's Luke Marshall also left earlier than planned, with "a good knock on the knee," as his coach Mark Anscombe described it -- it may well be a dead leg -- and it will be today at the earliest before Schmidt knows if he has worries about him as well.
O'Brien's injury aside -- typically he was playing very well -- Leinster were pretty good, avoiding with this win the awful prospect of three defeats on the trot.
"Yeah there were some harsh words after the two defeats but in fairness the boys owned up tonight," O'Connor said. "They were brilliant."
In fact the result puts them in the same frame as the Schmidt years for this time of year, and they slot in behind Munster at the top of the table. Ulster, however, were poor.
On 50 minutes, and with the score 13-6 in Leinster's favour -- they had the wind by then too -- Ruan Pienaar and Jared Payne came on and the travelling fans greeted their arrival as if it might be salvation. Immediately there was more impetus to their game, but to no material effect.
Indeed the only time they looked dangerous was when Paddy Jackson whacked over his second long-range penalty of the night, from as many attempts, seven minutes before the break. It confirmed Ulster's excellent ratio of chances taken to chances created.
Central to that stat was that what they created could be measured in fractions. It was hard to recall an incident of trespass in the Leinster 22. Harder still to think of any time over the course of the half when the home defence thought they might be in trouble.
Rather Leinster's preoccupation had been in hanging on to the ball when they got into the final third of the field. Unfortunately in rugby it often varies from referee to referee how much contest he allows for the ball at the breakdown. John Lacey allowed a lot.
This is not to say he was wrong, just that he let more go than some of his peers. So Ulster filled their boots. In fairness to Lacey, he didn't change tack after the break so Leinster learned from their mistakes and waded in.
They had several very good performers -- Zane Kirchner, Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald were a very effective back three -- but man of the match Jordi Murphy was, as O'Connor described him afterwards, "a class act."
The No 8 was tremendously dynamic and it will be interesting to see how O'Connor utilises him now that O'Brien is out of the frame for the foreseeable. Murphy was Leinster's only try scorer, a fine finish to a move shortly before half-time with Luke Fitzgerald doing well off a lineout move that had gone wrong.
Along with a Jimmy Gopperth penalty to two from Jackson it gave the home team a 10-6 lead at the break, and they edged further ahead through the outhalf with three more strikes after the break.
The only time they had to look concerned was when Ulster had a try referral for Payne knocked back. By then it was too late anyway. Anscombe said that Christmas had gone on too long for his team. Sounds like a rough week ahead.
Leinster, meantime, are in better shape already for the return to Europe in a fortnight, with Connacht in the way next weekend.
O'Brien's setback aside, they got the end-of-year present they wanted.
Scorers -- Leinster: J Murphy try; J Gopperth 4 pens, con. Ulster: P Jackson 2 pens
Leinster: Z Kirchner; D Kearney, B Macken, N Reid (I Madigan 66), L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss; J O'Connell (J McGrath 59), A Dundon (J Tracy 66), M Moore (M Ross 26 -33 temp; 66 perm ), L Cullen (capt), M McCarthy, R Ruddock, J Murphy, S O'Brien (D Ryan 54)
Ulster: R Andrew (J Payne 50); A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall (M Allen 58), C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall (R Marshall 50); C Black (T Court 59), R Herring, D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson (N McComb 68), D Tuohy, R Diack (capt), R Wilson, S Doyle (yc 36-46)
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU)