Thursday 18 January 2018

All so predictable as lethal Leinster rise to occasion

Leinster 30 Ulster 18

Leinster’s Isa Nacewa runs into Ulster’s Iain Henderson during last night’s Pro12 semi-final at the RDS (Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile)
Leinster’s Isa Nacewa runs into Ulster’s Iain Henderson during last night’s Pro12 semi-final at the RDS (Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile)
David Kelly

David Kelly

So predictable from Leinster. Predictable that they always beat Ulster when it matters. Three weeks ago, it didn't matter and an Ulster coach called their attack "predictable".

This showed them. No away team had won a Pro12 semi-final. Ulster wins here are as rare as Irish Eurovision successes in recent times. All so predictable.

Although, for a while, there was an unpredictable route to finding out what we already knew; that Leinster know how to win these games and Ulster, well, don't.

For this was an odd match, especially in the opening half; Leinster disappeared in its second quarter but they owned the opening stanza and dominated the second-half, tries from Isa Nacewa, Jamie Heaslip and Sean Cronin easing them into next week's Edinburgh final.

Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Jack McGrath, left, and Devin Toner (Sportsfile)
Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Jack McGrath, left, and Devin Toner (Sportsfile)

Leinster led 13-0 after almost as many minutes but Ulster hauled it back to 13-11 at the break; a crucial turnover early in the second-half effectively ended the contest, Leinster storming clear to breast the winning tape.

The home side had pounded their opponents from the first whistle, and when Jonny Sexton delivered a wrap around with Jordi Murphy it was almost as if he was delightfully riling Stephen Ferris, another Ulster voice, who had mocked the tactic during the week.

Luke Fitzgerald won three successive balls in the air against Andrew Trimble - Ulster coach Les Kiss had, perhaps out of the side of his mouth, suggested that Leinster would kick a lot, too.


But Leinster were moving fluidly also, attacking with width and depth when necessary in an opening salvo that took the breath away and left the visitors wheezing; it was little surprise that they would succumb to an early incision.

It came from an inevitable penalty advantage as Leinster pounded close to the line, Eoin Reddan steering the ball superbly to the right-hand corner - missing out the clever run of Dave Kearney - where Isa Nacewa danced and jigged brilliantly to upend the hapless and helpless pair of Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall.

His finish, rather awkward and ungainly, was perhaps the only bum note of the opening five minutes.

There would be no more in the next 10; instead, it was Ulster who were distinctly off-tune and off-colour, thoroughly discommoded by a rabid and rampant blue-clad force whose ravenous hunger devoured every single ball.

It was their most consummate quarter of the season, delivered at precisely the most important time.

Soon afterwards, Leinster thundered down the field again and were awarded a penalty which Jonathan Sexton converted with the easy, languid nature with which he had added the earlier conversion.

In the 15th minute, his third penalty made it 13-0; if not irretrievable, certainly on the evidence before our eyes it seemed improbable that Ulster could make any in-roads as Leinster threatened to run riot.

A messy scrum just outside the 22, somehow retrieved by Ulster, finally gave them time on the ball and, to be fair, they asked some probing questions, a Luke Marshall line-break prominent, before Ben Te'o stemmed Iain Henderson's gallop five metres short of the right corner flag.

Jonathan Sexton kicks a conversation following a try by teammate Isa Nacewa (Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton kicks a conversation following a try by teammate Isa Nacewa (Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

At least his supporters in the north stand had, along with their team, awoken from their stunning stupor.

Paddy Jackson began to assert some real impact as Ulster's sweet distribution system began to purr.

They did get some reward for resuscitating themselves when he converted a 27th-minute penalty to reduce the gap to 13-3; it was a first step. The next would need to be significant.

There were quite a few made by Iain Henderson, his first significant carry of the evening freighting all the renewed commitment of his team; cue more forceful drives and subtle back-play, providing them with another penalty and, at 13-6 in the 32nd minute, a more meaningful impression of being in a match.

Leinster, who made just four tackles in the opening 18 minutes, lording 87pc of the territory, were by now making more of the tackles (73-70) as we approached half-time.

Their 74th attempt was not effective enough and would allow Ulster to score their opening try.

Again it came from intelligent phased play deep in Leinster territory, Ruan Pienaar and Jackson dictating the tempo like wizened conductors, finally finding an under-employed defensive short-side.

It all ended with Craig Gilroy just about keeping his left foot in play at the left corner flag to marginally evade Dave Kearney's attempted shunt.

Jackson, the provider, failed to add the extras and, although Leinster feinted another attacking gambit just before the sides chugged into the sheds for a well-deserved cuppa, it felt like the momentum had swung utterly in the visitors' favour even though they trailed 13-11.

The definitive turning point arrived after a scintillating opening five minutes of the second act that ended with Ulster, after 16 phases, being turned over.

Seconds later, Leinster had scored their second try; some superb dancing in midfield from Garry Ringrose - aided and abetted by the unmoving statue that was Mike Ross! - ended in Ben Te'o's brilliant off-load finding Jamie Heaslip in the same corner where Gilroy had pounced before him.

It was fitting that Heaslip scored the try as he had effected the turnover. Sexton added the extras for 20-11.

Now it was Ulster's time to wilt; Jackson kicked away wastefully and Leinster rumbled a maul; then they smashed a scrum for which Sexton was afforded another chance with the tee.

Just before the hour, then, it was now 23-11 and Ulster were staring familiar, play-off defeat straight in the face. Cronin added a grace note. Ulster had barely touched the ball in the opposition half until Gilroy nabbed a late consolation.

Leinster advance to familiar territory next week, where they will remain unfancied. On this evidence, it would be folly to ignore their resilience.

Leinster - I Nacewa capt; D Kearney, G Ringrose, B Te'o (I Madigan 69), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (L McGrath 69), J McGrath (P Dooley 69), R Strauss (S Cronin 53), M Ross (T Furlong 53); D Toner, M Kearney (R Molony 67); R Ruddock (J Conan 74), J Murphy, J Heaslip.

ULSTER - J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall (D Cave 69), S McCloskey (S Olding 58), C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 76); C Black (K McCall 50), R Best capt (R Herring 76), R Lutton (A Warwick 62); P Browne (R Diack 67), F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy (R Wilson 62).

REF - I Davies (WRU).

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