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Leinster put off-field drama behind them to put Ulster to the sword at Kingspan Stadium

Ulster 13 Leinster 20

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Jimmy O'Brien, left, and Ross Molony of Leinster celebrate

Jimmy O'Brien, left, and Ross Molony of Leinster celebrate

Jimmy O'Brien, left, and Ross Molony of Leinster celebrate

Given the Monday afternoon announcement of impending upheaval at Leinster, Friday night in Belfast was a timely reminder that whatever may lay ahead for the eastern province, at this moment they are operating at a level a notch above all but one or two of Europe's elite.

It wasn't a perfect performance, or an 80-minute one, but the power and control that Leinster exhibited at Kingspan Stadium meant that they had a decent buffer by the time the home team came out to play in the final quarter.

Dan Sheehan was a standout, half-backs Luke McGrath and Ross Byrne controlled things for the majority and their defensive effort was a glaring feature of an impressive victory.

If Ulster thought the news of Stuart Lancaster's end-of-season departure to Racing 92 could disjoint the visitors, they received an emphatic answer inside ten minutes. And then another, and another, and another as Leo Cullen's men pummeled the home side to the extent that were Andrew Brace a boxing referee, he would have waved the contest off after the first 40.

The second half saw Ulster battle their way back into contention after a try at a maul from John Andrew and although they threatened to snatch a draw, Leinster's win was deserved, built on a decisive edge at the breakdown, scrum and in the contact area.

Ulster averaged 45 points in their opening two URC victories but only managed 13 against Leinster. Their strike runners behind the scrum get fans off their seats, but this was a night where torrential rain made wide-wide rugby almost impossible - bar one Garry Ringrose intervention - and yet Ulster insisted on pushing the play when the conditions were at their worst, and it cost them.

Leinster survived an early Ulster attack after a forward pass and shortly after struck first through two cornerstones of their game - forward power and handling under pressure.

Ross Byrne gave Leinster decent territory inside the opposition 22 after a scrum penalty and although Ulster looked to have Leinster well marshalled, Garry Ringrose picked a pass that separates him from his rivals, popping a sumptuous offload out of the tackle to free Dave Kearney on the left.

Ryan Baird was on hand to take the pass in the corner, and Ross Byrne's nailed conversion gave Leinster what already felt like a nice buffer in the rapidly deteriorating weather.

Ulster battled back well and after Marcus Rea won a turnover penalty inside his own 22, the home side worked their way up field but Leinster were able to escape after brilliant scramble defence on their line.

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The missed chance proved crucial as although John Cooney got Ulster's first points with a penalty, the visitors punished an ill-advised decision with a second try.

By the midway point of the first half, the rain was bucketing down to such an extent that TV commentary was knocked out on three stations - so it probably wasn't the wisest decision for Ulster to take a quick lineout inside their own 22.

Leinster turned the ball over and it didn't take long before Dan Sheehan was motoring over at the back of another maul for his fifth try in two games this season.

The rampaging hooker won't be telling his grandkids about his bevy of set-piece tries, but he still receives five points for each of them just the same.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland will be fuming with the sloppy handling and poor first-half discipline, with two knock-ons stunting promising attacks, while Byrne extended Leinster's lead before the break after McCloskey bulldozed his way in from the side.

Leinster's out-half kicked another three points right after the break before a Luke McGrath knock on from a high ball gave Ulster vital purchase in Leinster territory.

Nick Timoney promptly spilled the ball after picking off the base of the scrum, but the home team finally felt the roar of the crowd on the hour mark as the rain ceased, with replacement hooker Andrew getting in on the maul-try action after Jimmy O'Brien was yellow carded for killing the ball near the line.

Ulster worked their way down the field again and after Leinster collapsed a maul, the men in white had a lineout just 10m from the line and the chance to get within striking distance.

Another powerful maul brought them within 5m, before Ulster cleverly went wide as Michael Lowry delivered what appeared to be the scoring pass to Aaron Sexton in the left corner. However, a TMO check revealed that Leinster's new man Charle Ngatai put enough pressure on Sexton for him to lose the ball over the line.

The atmosphere flipped after referee Brace gave the verdict, with Ulster fans realising how costly the missed opportunity was, although a John Cooney penalty with less than ten minutes left gave them a sniff of draw.

An Ulster scrum penalty following a James Ryan knock on gave the home team one last chance, but a dominant tackle from Will Connors on Andrew allowed Sheehan snaffle possession. It was fitting that the man of the match had the final say, as Leinster left Belfast with their place atop Irish rugby firmly re-established.

ULSTER - M Lowry; A Sexton, L Marshall (A Curtis 73), S McCloskey, J Stockdale (B Moxham); B Burns, J Cooney (D Shanahan 73); A Warwick (E O'Sullivan 58), R Herring (J Andrew, 22), T O'Toole (M Moore 58); A O'Connor (capt), K Treadwell (S Carter 62); Matthew Rea (G Jones 58), Marcus Rea, N Timoney.

LEINSTER - J O'Brien (YC 61-71); J Larmour, G Ringrose (capt), R Henshaw, D Kearney (C Ngatai 40); R Byrne (J Sexton 67), L McGrath (N McCarthy 67); A Porter (E Byrne 64), D Sheehan, M Ala'alatoa (V Abdaladze); R Molony, J Jenkins (J Ryan 55); R Baird (W Connors 67), J van der Flier, J Conan.

REF - A Brace (IRFU)


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