Best 'frustrated' after milestone game falls flat
Ulster 10 Leinster 25
The good news for Ulster is that a sell-out crowd of 17,631 at Kingspan Stadium meant that, for the treasurer, the sums added up nicely. For the players and the coaching staff however, there were, and are, big gaps in the equation.
This was Leinster's first win in these parts since 2014, hardly a yawning stretch of setbacks but the prospect of three-in-a-row for Ulster in a fixture where they lag hopelessly behind was very attractive.
They were a mile off the pace, remaining scoreless after Sean Reidy's try on 28 minutes. To go that long without giving a crumb of comfort to your home crowd is bad business.
Ulster head to South Africa today, ahead of the Southern Kings game on Saturday, a long haul made harder by the poor quality of this performance.
From every angle its timing was off - Rory Best led the team out, accompanied by his kids, on the occasion of his 200th cap for his province. Bizarrely, he has yet to win at this venue in 2017.
They lost Jean Deysel in the first half with a shoulder injury, which robbed them of a big carrier - Leinster lost Noel Reid and James Ryan inside 12 minutes - and they couldn't get enough time on the ball to trouble Leinster, who also had to contend with a yellow card for Dave Kearney in the second half. Their lineout also went south.
"When you start to get that it's very hard to get out of your own half," Best said. "Leinster capitalised unbelievably well on the chances they got. We talked about it in the changing room - that will go down as one of the most disappointing results we've had in a while."
The previous week in La Rochelle a strong first 50 minutes was to be their benchmark for kicking on against Leinster. Instead, after half an hour, they played the guts of 50 minutes without firing a shot.
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"One of the most frustrating things was that every time we broke them with a line break we'd be turned over within a couple of phases. It was like the closer we got to their line at times the less urgent we'd become to clean out the ruck."
Under the current law trials teams are less inclined to contest the ball at the breakdown. In Leinster's case they were very good at picking and choosing their moments, which seemed to create a false sense of security in Ulster, who suddenly would find themselves battling to hang on to the ball. This is probably what earned Sean O'Brien his man-of-the-match award.
Leinster were hardly perfection themselves but they did enough right to win this handily, three tries to one; ahead at the break 13-10 and then further ahead at the finish, having had the aid of the wind in the second half.
Next up is the trip to Scotsoun on Friday night for a fixture that will be a test of strength in depth. With 18 players in the Ireland camp - Gregor Townsend has picked the same number of Glasgow players in the Scotland squad - it's about how well the others can stand up. And Leo Cullen should have confidence in how that will turn out.
In which case the form of Jordan Larmour was timely. He was thrown into the game well ahead of schedule because of the injuries and produced a stunning finish to give Leinster the lead just four minutes after he came on.
"He showed incredible footwork for his try and he has that bit of X-factor that a lot of people would have seen with the U-20s," Leo Cullen said.
"He's still got plenty of things to work on but he's a good kid and works hard. He's going to get better, Jordan, because he wants to get better and he wants to learn."
"We're going to need a lot of those young players against a team who are unbeaten in the league. It was a really positive experience coming up here, to try and get a win."
Ulster started well enough with a penalty for Christian Lealiifano after just six minutes but Larmour wiped that out only for Sean Reidy to score off the best Ulster scrum of the game. That put the home side 10-7 ahead after 28 minutes, and it was also the end of their positive input.
Ross Byrne kept the scoreboard ticking over and then two tries from replacement scrum-half Luke McGrath in the second half sealed the deal.
That they could have come close to a try bonus away from home, despite all the changes in selection, and then during the game, speaks volumes of Leinster's resources at the minute.
"We were trying to get everyone back to the halfway line to have a go at the bonus point," Cullen said of the end-game.
"It's important that we're scrapping it out for every point particularly with Ulster, Scarlets, Edinburgh and Treviso on our side of the conferences.
"It's much more relevant when we play those teams because they're in our pool (conference) and where we finish on the ladder is of huge significance.
"If you finish first you get a week off at that (play-off) time of the year. It certainly creates a few more scenarios."
The only credible one at the moment is that Leinster will be, as usual, at the business end.
ULSTER - C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey (L Ludik 70), J Stockdale; C Lealiifano (P Nelson 67), A Cairns (J Stewart 62); C Black (A Warwick 56), R Best (R Herring 56), R Ah You (R Kane 74); A O'Connor (K Treadwell 62), I Henderson (capt); S Reidy, C Henry, J Deysel (R Diack 17).
LEINSTER - R Kearney; A Byrne, R O'Loughlin, N Reid (J Larmour 4), D Kearney (y/c 56-66); R Byrne (C Marsh 76), J Gibson-Park (L McGrath 56); J McGrath (C Healy 48), J Tracy (R Strauss 67), T Furlong (A Porter 61); D Toner, J Ryan (R Molony 12); D Leavy (J Conan 56), J Murphy, S O'Brien (capt).
REF - J Lacey (Ireland).