Teary Pienaar departs with win
The fixtures at this time of year are scheduled in the hope that home derbies have more than local rivalry at stake. So imagine if Ulster went into this game - the last competitive outing for their talisman Ruan Pienaar, after seven stellar seasons - with a decent chance of taking up their usual spot in the last four of the Guinness PRO12.
Instead they were fulfilling a fixture, the unlikely backdrop to which was that a bonus-point win for them and a landslide defeat for Ospreys would give them a happy ending. Neither materialised. So there weren't too many smiling faces around Kingspan at the end of this one, though in fairness to the fans they stuck it out to the bitter end, and gave their side what they could. Their reward, such as it was, saw Ulster win only their third game in this fixture in the last 11 meetings.
And Pienaar wasn't doing cartwheels. He went off with 11 minutes left, to a standing ovation, looking thoroughly dejected. He fought back tears in the immediate aftermath as he did a lap of honour. The Springbok has been a hugely positive influence on the squad and this wasn't the planned exit.
Nor was it what Ulster expected when they invested in expensive signings. The arrival of coaches Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel can't come fast enough for a set-up that has so much going for it but so little to show for their efforts.
For the first 40 minutes here we were wondering the last time we had seen so many quality players perform so badly in such good conditions. Dry match days in Belfast are to be enjoyed. This was an opportunity wasted, and there were a fair number of men with their hands up to take the blame.
Leinster's lineout was all over the place, but compared to Ulster's it wasn't so bad. As for keeping the dry ball in the hand, well that was a challenge. Ironically, it was compounded by both sides being so positive: the harder they tried to play rugby the worse it got. It needed either or both to play more with grunt in the hope of making space for the finishers.
If this has been a season for Ulster to forget then at least for Roger Wilson it was a day to remember. Like Pienaar and prop Ricky Lutton - who was on for the ineffective Rodney Ah You early in the show - the No 8 was featuring in a competitive game here for the last time. So his try on nine minutes was well timed, and contributed to him picking up the man of the match award.
Moreover, it gave Ulster the lead which Leinster had taken in the fourth minute with a Joey Carbery penalty after Ah You had tackled James Tracy high. It was a lead they would never regain, so with Munster whipping Connacht in Limerick, it left Leinster finishing the regulation phase of the league in second place, but still with a home draw - against Scarlets on Friday week. Leo Cullen wasn't too happy with the way they played here, though at least they appear injury-free.
"They bullied us out there at times and some guys need to take a look at themselves," he said afterwards. "We need to improve because there's a tough challenge ahead with Scarlets who are a really physical team as well."
The game never really recovered once the tone had been set. You expected Leinster to close the deal late in the day when they were chasing a four-point deficit down the home straight, but they couldn't sort it.
So Ulster prevailed. Their half-time lead was 10-6, with Paddy Jackson kicking a penalty just before the break after Hayden Triggs was done for coming in from the side.
When Andrew Trimble got over on 55 minutes, which Jackson turned into a 17-6 lead, the fans were desperate for them to kick on. The passage that gave them those points was the highlight of their game: patience in the Leinster 22 - Luke McGrath did brilliantly to stop Jackson getting over for a try by the posts - and then Pienaar picking out his captain with a chip to the corner.
But for the last 25 minutes Ulster never looked like adding to it. Jacob Stockdale, one of the successes of their season, had a glorious chance of a long romp home when he picked off an intercept from Noel Reid's wound-up pass, but couldn't hold it.
In the end the home crowd were relieved that they didn't have to wave off their departing trio on the back of another defeat in this fixture. It wasn't cause for celebration, but at least it didn't add to the despair around these parts at another season gone south.
Scorers - Ulster: Wilson, Trimble tries; Jackson pen, 2 cons. Leinster: Penalty try; Carbery 2 pens, con.
Ulster: C Gilroy (J Stockdale 48); A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Piutau (P Nelson 59); P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 69); A Warwick (K McCall 67), R Herring (J Andrew 76), R Ah You (R Lutton 31), K Treadwell (N Timoney 67), A O'Connor, R Diack, R Wilson (C Henry 63), S Reidy (C Henry 53; S Reidy 59.)
Leinster: I Nacewa; A Byrne, G Ringrose, N Reid (R O'Loughlin 73), F McFadden; J Carbery, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 64); J McGrath (C Healy 57), J Tracy (R Strauss 57), T Furlong (A Porter 68), D Toner, H Triggs (R Molony 57), R Ruddock, J Conan, J van der Flier (D Leavy 57).
Referee: A Brace (IRFU)
Sunday Indo Sport