Thursday 18 January 2018

Jim Glennon: Leinster's key players shone in a game the competition needed

Leinster's Jamie Heaslip scores his side's second try of the match despite the tackle from Ulster's Paddy Jackson. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster's Jamie Heaslip scores his side's second try of the match despite the tackle from Ulster's Paddy Jackson. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Jim Glennon

It would be entirely reasonable to make the argument that it was the game that both teams wanted. Leinster, off the back of the hockeying they took up in Kingspan at the end of April, were ultra-keen for another crack at Ulster. But Ulster's season has been ended so many times by Leinster that they might have felt their time had finally come.

Although both Leo Cullen and Les Kiss are in their maiden seasons in their respective jobs, the stakes were as high for their careers as for their teams, although perhaps there was slightly less pressure on Kiss as Ulster's inability to close the deal meant expectations weren't quite as high as they were for Leinster. As it turned out, there was a real sense of bite from Leinster, still smarting from their recent experience, and if much of Ulster's progress in recent seasons has been based on an aggressive hard edge up front, the absence of the likes of Alan O'Connor and Nick Williams was keenly felt. Rory Best was uncharacteristically quiet, but Chris Henry and, in particular, Iain Henderson strove manfully against a superior unit.

Even at this relatively early stage of his career, Henderson has become something of a talisman for this Ulster team, much like Stephen Ferris in years gone by, his resilience and ability with ball in hand never fails to impress.

Leinster steered their way through much of the season without impressing greatly, save for their home European win against Bath. Their ability to control a game, and the power at their disposal relative to their Pro12 counterparts, was usually enough to see them through. Friday night was different though and for the opening 15 minutes, they performed at a level above anything achieved this season, racing into a 13-point lead.

The front-five was one area where Leinster, on paper, appeared to have the edge over their visitors. If there was to be an area in which dominance would be exerted, it was always going to be the scrum, and they duly went about their work. The starting unit of Jack McGrath, continuing his excellent season, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross had the edge over the Ulster trio of Callum Black, Rory Best and Ricky Lutton, a superiority which became more pronounced with the advent of replacements, with Sean Cronin and Tadgh Furlong particularly impressive.

For much of the season, centre Ben Te'o has been Leinster's shining light. His physical strength, in attack and defence, has been a major asset and his ability to offload was evident again. In advance of the game, the battle between himself and Stuart McCloskey was one of the more eye-catching match-ups - the latter's replacement, for tactical reasons apparently, midway through the second half was curious.

The campaign has been one of real progress for Paddy Jackson, and his confidence has been a hallmark of the Ulster season. Opposite the typically tetchy and sparky Sexton, Jackson was calm and assured, with something of a swagger about his play. Although his forwards struggled to secure front-foot ball, he attacked the gain-line when possible and, despite the heavy-hitters outside, was always his team's brightest spark.

Injuries, as ever, were a factor. Of all the absentees, however, Rob Kearney was the most interesting, resulting in Isa Nacewa moving to full-back with the impressive Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney taking the wing slots. Of the many debates and discussions that have persisted over the course of the season, Rob Kearney's continued selection, when fit, in the Irish number 15 jersey has been one of the more persistent, with many of the view that Stuart ­McCloskey in the centre with Jared Payne at full-back represents Joe Schmidt's best option. It was a shame nonetheless that we didn't get to see the two on the same pitch on Friday.

While much of the turnaround can be attributed to Leinster's mindset, negative at Ravenhill and positive at the RDS, the real difference on Friday was in the performance of their key players. Sexton and Jamie Heaslip both played to a level not seen this season, with Fitzgerald and Eoin Reddan not far behind and McGrath doing as he has done all season.

Ulster, having clawed their way back after Leinster's opening salvo, had left themselves with too much to do, and what had been an excellent contest between two good sides playing well began to slip from their grasp once the benches came into play. If it was the game that both sides wanted, it was undoubtedly the game the competition needed.

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