Shortly before kick-off in the RDS last night, a man who knows Ulster fairly well was suggesting that how his side reacted to their defeat by Northampton last weekend would tell us if they had what it takes to be real contenders. He didn't sound confident.
Europe was done and dusted, but staying on course for the closing stages of the Magners was a hugely important test of their character. Well, after 13 minutes in front of a 17,670 crowd and on a lovely night for rugby, the second half against the Saints seemed a long way off, and the immediate test was to stay on the coat tails of a Leinster team that had raced into a 3-0 lead on tries.
It was the sort of blitz we have become accustomed to from Joe Schmidt's side: everything was done with pace and aggression, and when the right level of accuracy is part of the mix it's unstoppable. To their credit, Ulster edged their way back into the game through the boot of Ian Humphreys, and were 17-9 behind coming to the half-hour mark.
By half-time however, the climb had steepened again, Leinster had their bonus point and at 27-12 the away team were starting from scratch. By the finish Leinster had moved to second place in the table behind Munster, and, depending what happens elsewhere, they could secure a home semi-final on their next outing -- away to Aironi next weekend. The pairing which the Magners League are praying for -- Munster v Leinster -- is still on course. And Leinster's form is also heading in the right direction.
There was literally one minute and 12 seconds on the clock when they opened the scoring. They had attacked in waves from the kick off and when Ulster's defence was up flat in their own 22, Sexton dropped the ball in behind where Eoin O'Malley scooped it up to the supporting Richardt Strauss. Who else?
Four minutes later, Luke Fitzgerald got over for a score which was perfectly timed given his struggle for touch lately. It came at the expense of Adam D'Arcy who was badly caught out by a pass from Isa Nacewa -- otherwise D'Arcy was very good.
Then Shane Horgan got over on the far side after a perfect pass from Fergus McFadden who looked sharp and direct every time he got the ball. That Jonny Sexton missed two of the three conversions mitigated the damage for Ulster who couldn't get hold of the ball for long enough.
Even when they would pull back three points through Humphreys, Sexton would restart to Horgan's wing and either Leinster would reclaim it or at least make it unusable for Ulster. It didn't matter whether it was Craig Gilroy or the extremely abrasive Andrew Trimble who was on that side -- the effect was the same.
The half time score of 27-12 was about right, Heinke van der Merwe scored off a very lateral lineout maul while Dan Tuohy and Leo Cullen were scrapping nearby, and then Ruan Pienaar pulled back three points with a penalty just before the whistle -- and by 45 minutes Leinster had pushed it out to 34-12, with Horgan's second try.
It was a fortuitous chip and gather which you won't find in any coaching manual and it killed stone dead any chance of Ulster picking up even a bonus point. That left a big gap to be filled in before the finish. It remained interesting though because there was enough feistiness and off the ball stuff to be going on with.
The benches had been virtually emptied with almost 10 minutes to go and even here Leinster had a good deal more firepower to call on, highlighted by being able to bring on Nathan Hines and Sean O'Brien together after Leo Cullen and Kevin McLaughlin had ended up in a heap.
Ulster managed to close the gap somewhat in the last half hour with tries from Pedrie Wannenberg -- who had been binned in the first half for obstructing Fitzgerald -- and then Craig Gilroy who touched down with four minutes left. A bit less than they needed to get into the contender class. Leinster are platinum card holders.
Scorers -- Leinster: S Horgan 2 tries; R Strauss, L Fitzgerald, H van der Merwe try each; J Sexton pen, 3 cons. Ulster: P Wannenberg, C Gilroy try each; I Humphreys 3 pens; R Pienaar pen, 2 cons.
Leinster: I Nacewa (D Kearney 50); S Horgan, E O'Malley, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 50), I Boss; H van der Merwe (C Healy 77), R Strauss (J Harris Wright 56), S Wright (M Ross 55), L Cullen (capt)(N Hines 49), D Toner, K McLaughlin (S O'Brien 49), J Heaslip, S Jennings
Ulster: A D'Arcy (C Gaston 66); A Trimble, N Spence (D Cave 50), P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys (P Marshall 70), R Pienaar; P McAllister (B Young 62), R Best (capt, A Kyriacou 77), BJ Botha (J Cronin 32), T Barker (N McComb 61), D Tuohy, R Diack (W Faloon 50), P Wannenberg (yc 35-45), C Henrie.
Referee: P Gauzere (France).
Sunday Indo Sport