Stockdale error decisive as Leinster dig deep to deny Ulster in pulsating Champions Cup encounter
Leinster 21 Ulster 18
Truly a demolition derby. Leinster remain alive, just, in their challenge to defend their title.
At the final whistle, Ed Byrne, their replacement prop, and John Cooney, Ulster's remarkable Dublin-born scrum-half, bore the claret-spilling injuries of a torrid, titanic tussle.
A contest that flowed this way and that had plenty of more casualties, too – Dan Leavy suffering such a horrendous second-half injuries that TV cameras refused to replay it, while Irish captain Rory Best didn't make it past the 16th minute.
Ross Byrne, Jonathan Sexton's stand-in, would finish the game with cramp; his last action a wondrous penalty kick in the 73rd minute, from wide on the right, to finally signal brave Ulster resistance.
Holding on to the ball for 40 phases and multiple minutes - after Dave Kearney's massive tackle on Michael Lowry - confirmed it.
A harsh critic would say Ulster blew their chance; a fair one would say a true championship side prevailed through sheer grit and experience.
Ulster will carry many regrets; Jacob Stockdale, their try machine, unplugged his scoring senses when dropping the ball over the line early in the second-half.
And even when Luke Marshall's fairytale return was capped with a try after 65 minutes – drawing the sides level at 18-18 – the ultra-reliable Cooney also chose the worst moment to falter with a poor conversion.
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It was a rare mis-step on a day when he dominated the half-back exchanges; in golfing parlance, he came up off his shot; as if Ulster were hoping for the finishing line, uncertain that they could really make it.
Leinster's muscle memory, and Cup nous, edged them over the line.
Leinster now advance to face French opposition, perhaps emboldened by Sexton's return but if they are as hard-pressed as they were today, their crown may sit a little more uneasily atop their heads.
For Ulster, the 20th anniversary of their 1999 success passes by with yet more disappointment but, perhaps, in Dan McFarland's encouraging first season in charge, the promise that they can advance still further next term.
This pain will drive them.
A pulsating opening to the match featured an opening five minutes where, aside from one brief stoppage, the ball was always in play and it was usually Ulster who were playing it, thundering into collisions and more often than not breaching the gain-line.
Leinster seemed rather startled by the intensity and, even when they attempted to respond, they were rocked back by Iain Henderson and his feverishly tackling colleagues, regardless of the number on their backs.
Jacob Stockdale sensed first blood, sent scampering down the short-side from a handily-placed scrum as Ulster planted themselves in the opposition 22; it took four Leinster men to bundle the mountainous winger into touch as he marauded across the field towards the left corner flag in front of the Havelock Square.
It didn't take them long to inflict the first blow of this heavyweight contest and it came from their relentless pressure on Leinster; albeit ironically from their first mistake of the game.
Rory Best's first throw from touch went awry but not matter; a few phases later, a snatchy Ross Byrne pass put Garry Ringrose in two minds; he chose the most frazzled one, running laterally and into a whole heap of advancing red-shirted trouble.
Compounding the danger, he chose to kick; which was also ill-advised; Best got his sizeable mittens to the pill and Kieran Treadwell pounced to send the Ulster hordes into early rapture; John Cooney slotted his first ever points in this stadium for the full seven-points.
After scoring within six minutes, their focus would have been on ensuring Leinster didn't do the same; they failed in the attempt.
By the 11th minute, Ross Byrne, having once ignored a decent over-lap to his right as his punishing pack had pummelled their way towards the whitewash in the first intense assault, did so again but his courage was rewarded, as he squiggled over the line.
He missed the conversion and, not for the first time, the unforgiving TV cameras panned to Jonathan Sexton with his civvies on in the stand.
Ulster dropped their intensity, a tad, and were then stung with the departure of their inspirational captain; Best turning on an ankle and departing, reluctantly and ruefully, after just 16 minutes.
As if propelled to re-ignite after witnessing the loss of their leader, Ulster's regathered and indulged their ferocious line-speed, disrupting Leinster's attempts to deploy their wide men.
Sometimes, it was too over-eager, Darren cave wandering offside as Robert Balocoune smashed Jordan Larmour (not for the first time) in the 18th minute.
Yet again, though, Byrne's kick from straight in front, about 50 metres out, went askew; five points gone west now.
Four minutes later, as Cian Healy was done for trying to have a second bite at an Ulster ruck – Romain Poite let the game flow in this way all day – Cooney added his second place-kick to push his side 10-5 ahead to end a raucous first quarter.
You expected the champions' championship smarts to aid them; but when Byrne eschewed a penalty following Henderson's silly penalty concession, Leinster fouled up the line-out and left more points behind them.
Still Ulster smashed into the tackles, Cave investigating Ringrose's ribs in midfield and suddenly Michael Lowry was zig-zagging to the try-line; it was difficult with the noise to hear Poite's earlier whistling for a knock-on in Cave's tackle effort.
Ulster were undergoing a period of uncertainty; Nick Timoney conceded a penalty in the 31st minute and Byrne, now finding his radar, couldn't miss and reduced the margin to two points.
From the restart, Ulster fouled up an elaborate move, going backwards, conceding a scrum and thence a penalty.
But they finished the half resurgent; O'Brien succumbing to the whistle as Ulster built pressure; Cooney, channelling Ruan Pienaar with a dominant display, bisected the sticks and his side, buttressed by Stu McCloskey smashing Adam Byrne to end the last 20-phase play of the half, headed, exhausted, to a 13-11 half-time lead.
The pace couldn't last; but it did. Indeed, the second-half started much the same as the first did, with Ringrose being charged down again, fortunately for him the ultimate tariff was not conceded this time as the dead ball line saved his second blushes.
But there was more embarrassment to come and few would have predicted Stockdale would provide it; the leading try-scorer in this competition should have stretched his side's lead but, after doing all the hard work, slipping Larmour's tackle, he disbelievingly knocked the ball on while in the process of grounding.
Dave Kearney had done well to trouble him but, when a winger is over the line, he must dive; it was a schoolboy error. Compounding it, Leinster won a penalty from the scrum.
Let off the hook, they attempted to turn the screw. Jack Conan inspired the doubt but Leinster's clever wide passing game had spread the defence as the Leinster eight burst through a poorly-pillared ruck.
As Conan hared down the right wing, Adam Byrne was in support and he finished the score expertly against the stretched defence.
Patience marked the score; Byrne's conversion marked down an 18-13 lead; particularly healthy given the intensity of the contest.
Ulster, flagging but still willing and redoubtable, were struggling to win the collisions as they had done earlier in the piece and Cooney needed to keep prodding them forward.
As the hour ticked by, they needed something to happen. It came from an unlikely source. Luke Marshall hadn't played rugby in ten months for his province and had barely played ten minutes here before he made his mark.
Ignoring an outrageous over-lap, he bravely plunged for the line; the Ulster men in the crowd stood up once more and applauded.
Cooney, faultless all afternoon, needed to convert but he dragged his kick.
Byrne, on one leg, wouldn't drag his when the opportunity came in the 73rd minute; it was to be his final contribution. And a decisive one.
Leinster - J Larmour; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R O'Loughlin (N Reid HT), D Kearney; R Byrne (R Kearney 73), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 58 (McGrath 67); C Healy (E Byrne 58), S Cronin (J Tracy 58), T Furlong (A Porter 66), S Fardy, J Ryan, R Ruddock capt, S O'Brien (D Leavy 52 (O'Brien 63)), J Conan.
Ulster - M Lowry; R Baloucoune, D Cave (L Marshall 63), S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Best capt (R Herring 16), M Moore (W Herbst 56), I Henderson, K Treadwell, N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee (S Reidy 52)
Referee: Romain Poite (France)