Leinster 26 Bulls 27
THE kings of the PRO14 have been unseated in the first edition of the United Rugby Championship. The South Africans are well and truly part of the picture now.
Leinster were heavy favourites to make the final, but the Bulls of Pretoria lived up to their storied Super Rugby reputation by producing a performance brimming with aggression, nous, pace and tactical discipline.
They had a myriad of excuses to call on, but instead they produced a performance that stunned the RDS. This doesn’t happen to a first-choice Leinster team in their own back-yard.
2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White played the poor mouth all week, but his team had the attributes to knock Leinster off their stride and a smart gameplan to match.
They tore into the physical battle, dominated the lineout battle and turned the scrum around.
In the face of a physical onslaught, Leinster made bad errors and were guilty of poor discipline. They kept going to the final whistle, but it wasn’t enough.
For the first time since 2017, they’ll finish a season without a trophy.
Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have work to do. These South African sides will only get stronger and, for the watching Andy Farrell, there were worrying echoes of the worst days as the cream of Irish professional rugby were beaten up once again.
The Bulls brought made an early statement with second-minute goal-line stop that gave them heart as they tore into their task.
Leinster weren’t about to be put off their stride and their first try came as the forwards began to free their hands in contact.
With the heavy rain before kick-off making life difficult for the back-three, Ross Byrne decided to test things out with a well-placed grubber that resulted in Dan Sheehan touching down thanks to some industrious chasing from Rory O’Loughlin.
Byrne converted, but Chris Smith got the visitors off the mark after Caelan Doris coughed up a penalty and another concession from the Ireland flanker led to the Bulls’ first try.
Teenage full-back Canan Moodie knocked the ball on when touching down one-handed under no pressure.
Referee Andrea Piardi went back for a penalty and the Bulls ran a well-executed pre-planned play as the brilliant Elrigh Louw sucked in the defenders and switched the ball to Johan Grobelaar who powered over.
Smith made it 10-7 and Jake White’s team weren’t satisfied, exploiting more Leinster ill-discipline to move into position before striking ruthlessly off the lineout with a series of strong carries before Coetzee himself crashed over and Smith made it a 10-point game.
Leinster looked rattled, but Robbie Henshaw took matters into his own hands with a beautiful pass that released Jordan Larmour into space before he followed up a strong Joe McCarthy carry by cleverly picked from the ruck, held Louw off and reached for the line and Byrne’s conversion narrowed the gap.
Although their lineout creaked at times, Leinster’s scrum was dominant and, as the heavens opened in Ballsbridge, they eked out a penalty before the break and went in search of a half-time lead only to have another ruck ball pilfered.
They started the second half as the Bulls began the first, holding out on their own line thanks to some brilliant defensive efforts and an Andrew Porter poach penalty.
They might have built on it but for a Jamison Gibson-Park knock-on at the base of a ruck deep in Bulls territory, while a loose Tadhg Furlong pass cost them on their next visit.
The South Africans followed that up by forcing a scrum penalty, Van der Flier coughed up another and when the Leinster forwards hauled down a rampant maul the ref headed to the posts to award a penalty try.
It was a costly moment as James Ryan saw yellow to boot and even the arrival of Johnny Sexton couldn’t shift the momentum as the home side had a lucky escape when Jimmy O’Brien was charged down by Harold Vorster who lost his feet as he sought to dive on the ball and score.
That probably would have been that, but instead Leinster survived with Sexton driving them on but they were undone by a poor Jack Conan decision as he ignored Sheehan in space and two lost 5m lineouts.
A huge Garry Ringrose take was followed by a high tackle from Jordan Larmour, as Leinster just kept shooting themselves in the foot and letting the visitors off the hook.
Leinster were in desperate need of something and they got it when Madosh Tambwe ran into his own man, allowing Sexton to find touch on half-way.
This time, Sheehan found Ross Molony and the backs took their rare opportunity to attack off clean ball as Henshaw released Larmour on an inside line and the winger found Ringrose who was snagged by Moodie but got the ball away to O’Brien and he put O’Loughlin away.
Sexton missed the touchline conversion and it was a costly one as the Morné Steyn was able to stretch the Bulls’ lead to eight with five minutes remaining.
Leinster chased, but when Molony dropped the ball and then didn’t release on the deck the game was up. By the time Cian Healy powered over and Sexton converted it was all in vain.
LEINSTER – J O’Brien; J Larmour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, R O’Loughlin (C Frawley 76); R Byrne (J Sexton 54), J Gibson-Park (L McGrath 66); A Porter (C Healy 79), D Sheehan, T Furlong (M Ala’alatoa 51); J McCarthy (R Molony 54), J Ryan (capt); C Doris, J van der Flier, J Conan (R Ruddock 69).
BULLS – C Moodie; D Kriel (KL Arendse 37), C Hendricks, H Vorster, M Tambwe; C Smith (M Steyn 73), Z Burger (E Papier 64); G Steenekamp (S Matanzima 57), J Grobbelaar (B du Plessis 66), M Smith (R Hunt 57); W Steenkamp (J Swanepoel 57), R Nortje; M Coetzee, A Botha (WJ Steenkamp 72), E Louw.
REF – A Piardi (Italy)