Tired Leinster give up their crown with limp defeat
Ulster 26 - Leinster 10
A night that ended Leinster's season as a going concern concluded with a phase of play that summed it all up succinctly.
The victory was long gone for the champions as they pounded away at Ulster's defensive line, deep in opposition territory. Phase after phase, they carried the ball but somehow went backwards, before eventually the inevitable mistake came and the Kingspan Stadium erupted.
Boy, did Ulster enjoy this one. For four seasons they have been knocking on the door of silverware only for their neighbours from the south to keep them at arm's length. This talented group of players must hate the sight of blue, so they'll have little sympathy for Matt O'Connor and his men as they focus on winning the Guinness Pro12.
A five-day turnaround from their extra-time European semi-final defeat in Marseille meant this always looked a big ask for the Blues and so it proved as they raced into a 10-0 win after 10 minutes and never scored again.
Mathematically, they retain a chance of making the play-offs but they know their chance is gone and are fully aware that last night's defeat was not the reason they won't have a trophy to lift for the first time since 2010.
"It's very disappointing, there's no question as to how disappointed we are in the changing room down there," O'Connor said. "We made it hard for ourselves, we lost games throughout the course of the league that we shouldn't have lost and the reality of that is that we put pressure on ourselves. To have to win at places like Ravenhill against a really good side, then it's going to be hard.
"We've let points slip, we've lost a lot of games with very tight margins. We've had a couple of draws that have been costly, we'll look at those things at the end of the season.
"Meritocracy has made the league more competitive, we haven't mirrored the rise in intensity."
Getting on the wrong side of referee John Lacey didn't help their cause in Belfast, with yellow cards to Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney costing them, but when opportunities presented themselves Leinster couldn't take them, as has been an issue all year.
Carrying on the intensity of their 100 minutes against Toulon, Jimmy Gopperth opened the scoring with a penalty after a searing early break, before Ben Te'o brilliantly broke Roger Wilson's tackle to score a try which the fly-half converted
He then made an error in his own half that invited Ulster into the game - and the hosts never looked back. The Kiwi out-half skewed a kick sideways which led to Ruan Pienaar having his first shot on goal.
He sent that wide, but made up for it two minutes later when converting Iain Henderson's try after Paddy Jackson had carved Leinster open on the right, Tommy Bowe and Louis Ludik had combined well up the left and the Ireland forward went over unopposed.
Replays show that referee Lacey had given the blindside a helping hand by blocking O'Brien and the Tullow Tank had further reason to be annoyed with the former Munster player minutes later as he spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin. First, the Ireland openside was penalised for not rolling away, allowing Pienaar to level, before he was harshly adjudged to have lifted and dropped Henderson dangerously at a ruck.
Ulster had a man advantage, but failed to adapt to the rainy night and tried to play too much rugby against a pack a man down.
Leinster defended well, repelling a series of white waves and ending the 10-minute period in the same shape they entered it in, but it would have taken a toll on their already tired legs.
Pienaar missed a penalty chance to put his side in front for the first time, but made up for it when Boss strayed offside to secure a 13-10 interval lead.
Gopperth began the second half with another fine break, but this time he failed to spot Luke Fitzgerald in space, and another Strauss throw went astray when they had a chance close to the Ulster line.
That took the sting out of the visiting side's advances, but despite being down on the scoreboard they were in a game that was becoming increasingly scrappy.
The home crowd was on their feet to acclaim Craig Gilroy when they thought he had touched down a Jackson chip-through but Lacey had a look at the replay and confirmed that Kearney had done enough to force the winger into touch.
Leinster's schedule was beginning to take its toll, however, and uncharacteristic handling errors from Kearney and O'Brien meant they couldn't escape their half.
The game swung firmly in Ulster's favour when Louis Ludik slipped Jordi Murphy's tackle and scythed through, before feeding Tommy Bowe. The Ireland winger was stopped short by a brilliant Kearney tackle, but the Ireland full-back played the ball off his feet and received his marching orders from Lacey.
As he left the field for 10 minutes, Pienaar doubled his side's lead, before another ruck infringement from Jack McGrath allowed him make it a nine-point game with 14 to go.
Down a man and clearly drained by the events of the past week, Leinster were a spent force and Ulster knew it, revelling in going for the jugular as Jackson put Gilroy over to put the result beyond doubt with Pienaar adding the extras.
Now that their old foes are out of the way, it's up to them to go on and claim the trophy on home soil next month. They'll never have a better opportunity.
Ulster - L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne (S McCloskey 51), D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black (A Warwick 70), R Best (capt) (R Herring 66), W Herbst (B Ross 70), D Tuohy, F van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson.
Leinster - R Kearney; Z Kirchner, B Te'o, G D'Arcy (I Madigan 68), L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss (E Reddan 68); C Healy (J McGrath 59), R Strauss (S Cronin 59), M Ross (T Furlong 66); D Toner, M McCarthy (B Marshall 68); D Ryan (J Murphy 52), S O'Brien, J Heaslip (capt).
Ref - J Lacey (IRFU)