Ulster errors let Blues off hook
Leinster 21 Ulster 18
The great attraction of this competition when it was cobbled together in 1995 to service the new game of professional rugby was the sheer glamour of cross border contact. Its many memorable moments over the years featured the best of one country against the best of another whom they perhaps had never played before. It has also given us awesome contests between teams who are sick of the sight of each other. This was one of those.
It will have been a long drive home for the Ulster fans despite the fact that the motorway has long since broken the back of that journey. And along every kilometre they would have rewound key moments that were within their control, things they could have squared away readily enough to win the game.
Top of the list will have been Jacob Stockdale's mental blip. In surely his favourite corner of this stadium he had done everything right to skate through a narrow gap and into the scoring zone where all that remained was to fall on the ball for five points. He got a bit casual and went to place it, with Dave Kearney in close attendance. The ball went forward.
It was early in the second half and Ulster were 13-11 ahead. To their enormous credit they got on with it, and having fallen behind to an Adam Byrne try on 53 minutes, responded with one of their own from replacement Luke Marshall. It was 65 minutes; the scores were level 18-18, and the conversion for John Cooney, who was three from three at that point, was handy enough. He missed it.
Leinster did a quick tot on the bullets they had dodged and decided it was time to go for the kill. Enter Ross Byrne. The Leinster 10, in for the injured Johnny Sexton, had missed his first two shots on goal in the first half. After a bout of Leinster pressure he went into deep discussion with captain Rhys Ruddock over what to do with a penalty wide on the right. The fact that Byrne had been severely hampered by cramp for the previous 10 minutes was worth considering. He took the kick on, and nailed it. Champion stuff. Leinster played the remaining eight minutes out in Ulster territory. More champion stuff.
This was a cracking contest in near perfect conditions. Fast and mostly accurate and compelling to the end, at which point the winners retired to consider a semi-final at this venue if Toulouse win this afternoon's tie with Racing, or in Paris if Racing prevail.
Their plan had been to win this with more to spare. Mostly though it had been to win.
Critically for Ulster, and for the contest as a spectacle, the away side got a decent start. Their last win in Dublin was six years ago after which Ruan Pienaar literally praised the Lord. That feels like another era.
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So mentally they weren't tooled up to leak a load of points and then chase with confidence a home team who know the European script backwards. And they didn't have to grapple with that. So sure were they of what they were doing that losing captain Rory Best with an ankle injury inside the first quarter didn't knock a feather out of them.
By that stage, on 17 minutes, they were already 7-5 ahead, and would stretch that to 10-5 a few minutes after Best's departure. They had a load of lads leading the charge: Marcell Coetzee and Kieran Treadwell were doing most damage, and by half-time he would already have 11 carries to his name.
And with referee Romain Poite doing what he does - light touch regulation at the breakdown - they were trading equally with a team who pride themselves on turnover ball. Unquestionably though the chief stabilising factor was getting seven points on the board so fast.
With not even six minutes on the clock, from a woefully bad Ulster lineout, Best and Henderson combined to block down Garry Ringrose who had traversed the field in his own 22 looking for a way out. He would have been safer to keep sniffing. Treadwell was first to the breaking ball to touch down and Cooney added the extras. All around Lansdowne Road there were folks standing up for the Ulstermen.
Ross Byrne did very well to get over a few minutes later after a good line from Rory O'Loughlin, and he traded penalties with Cooney before the break to leave Ulster 13-11 in front. So you see the impact of the Stockdale incident five minutes into the second half. Billy Burns hadn't had the best game on the front foot but he got that build-up spot on.
Still they recovered - as did Stockdale himself - and their defence was outstanding. But Conan spotted a gap close to the side of a ruck on 54 minutes and did brilliantly to eat up a load of ground and put Adam Byrne over. Ross Byrne nailed the kick from the touchline.
Ulster came back again, with that Marshall try, but the air went out of them when the conversion went south. You can't have that many goes at putting Leinster away. For Ulster there was no way back.
Scorers - Leinster: R Byrne try, 3 pens, con, A Byrne try. Ulster: Treadwell, Marshall try each; Cooney 2 pens, con
Leinster: J Larmour; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R O'Loughlin (N Reid h-t), D Kearney; R Byrne (R Kearney 73), L McGrath (J Gibson Park 58; L McGrath HIA 66); C Healy (E Byrne 58), S Cronin (J Tracy 58), T Furlong (A Porter 67); S Fardy, J Ryan; R Ruddock (capt), J Conan, S O'Brien (D Leavy 52; M Kearney 63).
Ulster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, D Cave (L Marshall 63), S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan (A Warwick 73), R Best (capt) (R Herring 17), M Moore (W Herbst 56); I Henderson, K Treadwell; N Timoney, M Coetzee (S Reidy 52), J Murphy.
Referee: R Poite.
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