Leinster 10 Ulster 20
The United Rugby Championship may be close to disarray given the desperately unfortunate news coming from South Africa, but an Irish derby is an Irish derby.
These oldest of old rivals had a right old arm wrestle in front of a sizeable crowd in a Baltic Ballsbridge, at the end of which most left disappointed as Ulster recorded their first win at the RDS since March 2013 and only their second in total.
They could thank their defence as much as their attack for, after a dominant first 16 minutes, Ulster had slightly less of the territory and possession overall but made 199 tackles, Rob Herring and Alan O’Connor leading the way with 22 apiece in 80 minute shifts, with Nick Timoney augmenting 19 tackles with 17 carries as well as winning a few turnovers in a huge performance.
Even Marty Moore chipped in with 15 tackles in a 70 minute shift, while Stuart McCloskey and James Hume regularly brought fast line speed and sharp tackle execution as Ulster prevented Leinster from reaching the edges as they normally do, leaving the sharp-looking Adam Byrne under served.
It was tough too on Ross Molony and Scott Penny, who had mighty games, and Robbie Henshaw, but Leinster lacked some of their customary rhythm after the November hiatus – albeit this was the same for Ulster – with their lineout and breakdown work not of their normal standards.
Frank Murphy’s whistle dominated proceedings, as tends to be the case, and the majority in the 15-11 penalty count against Leinster were rewarding players in the jackal.
Ultimately though, it felt like Ulster brought a little more emotion and intensity.
Ulster’s intent and control of the ball from the off was impressive, twice going to the corner and three times putting Leinster through big defensive sets. The highlights were a brilliant tackle close to the line by McGrath, as he does, to deny Billy Burns and Molony’s strength over the ball to lift the siege before Cooney was surprisingly wide with a straight 40 metre penalty.
However, Ulster’s dominance of territory and possession was rewarded after Timoney won a turnover penalty to earn a lineout outside the Leinster 22.
A strong maul, good carries from Herring, Sam Carter (off a lovely pass from Moore) and Andrew Warwick, led to James Hume fending Jordan Larmour on the outside and although Larmour recovered to haul him down, from the recycle Greg Jones held his depth with an unstoppable out-in line. Cooney converted.
Leinster held firm again before Henshaw won a penalty in the jackal as the opposing blindsides, Leavy and Jones, departed in the 21st minute for HIAs with neither returning.
The home side and crowd were sparked into life by Ciarán Frawley cutting back against the grain and breaking out from inside his own 22. He opted to chip Craig Gilroy and was blocked but, despite the howls of protest, Frawley pretty much ran straight into him.
Moving up the gears and showing better variety in their attack as Henshaw’s superb pass found Larmour on the edge, Leinster opted for the corner but couldn’t launch their maul as Devin Toner was forced to tap loosely under pressure from David McCann.
There were other attacks, Adam Byrne beating the blitz to make a big carry and offloading to Jimmy O’Brien, who did likewise for Larmour, but it was Ulster who came closest again when Burns stepped between Rhys Ruddock and Frawley but couldn’t complete the link with the supporting Cooney.
The final act of the half was a harsh penalty against Furlong in the jackal, which had him with his hands on his head in disbelief, on the premise that the ruck had just about formed. But Cooney was wide with a difficult 45 metre penalty near the right touchline.
On the resumption Molony made a huge gallop from McGrath’s disguised pass only for McCloskey to shoot up from the recycle to nail Ross Byrne. It looked a tad high but Leo Colgan seemed not to even review it.
Adapting to the wind, now against them, the normally utterly reliable Herring had a rare crooked throw. In any event, Ulster’s line speed and tackling continued to stifle Leinster, and although James Tracy pounced on loose ball, Murphy then penalised Penny for not having rolled away.
Cooney made it 10-0, whereupon the game turned out of the blue. It emanated in Michael Lowry opting for the questionable and certainly riskier option of countering from inside his 22 when there was plenty of grass down field.
Penny pounced on a loose ball and scampered up the touchline, Ulster killing the ball to concede a penalty and Leinster opted for the corner. They hammered away at the Ulster line off the maul in trademark style and Henshaw, despite having to check and pick the ball when McGrath’s pass scooted along the ground, showed good footwork and strength to dive over.
Ross Byrne drew the sides level before being replaced by Harry Byrne, who brought excitement but less reliability. A kick out on the full led to Max Deegan coming around the side of the maul and Nathan Doak, on for Cooney, kicked Ulster back in front with a fine penalty.
The younger Byrne compounded that error by chipping out on the full and then knocking on, albeit when hit by James Hume simultaneously as Ulster’s line speed extracted them from trouble again.
Yet another penalty in the jackal, this one awarded to Rob Lyttle even though Ross Kane not rolling away was the first offence, put Ulster inside the Leinster 22 entering the final five minutes, only for Penny to win yet another one.
Almost fittingly though, Ulster’s policy of using shooters in defence ensured they had the final, decisive say. Burns shot up to force Frawley to push the pass and then Hume shot up to pick off Tommy O’Brien’s pass for a free run to the line and Doak’s conversion sealed the deal.
Scoring sequence: 16 mins Jones try, Cooney con 0-7; (half-time 0-7); 47 mins Cooney pen 0-10; 51 mins Henshaw try, R Byrne con 7-10; 65 mins R Byrne pen 10-10; 68 Cooney pen 10-13; 79 mins Hume try, Doak con 10-20.
Leinster: Jimmy O’Brien; Adam Byrne, Robbie Henshaw, Ciaran Frawley, Jordan Larmour; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Ed Byrne, James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, Devin Toner; Dan Leavy, Scott Penny, Rhys Ruddock.
Replacements: Max Deegan for Leavy (21 mins), Sean Cronin for Tracy, Peter Dooley for E Byrne (both 52 mins), Will Connors for Ruddock (60 mins), Nick McCarthy for McGrath, Harry Byrne for R Byrne (both 66 mins), Vakh Abdaladze for Furlong (69 mins), Tommy O’Brien for Larmour (71 mins).
Ulster: Michael Lowry; Craig Gilroy, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Marty Moore; Alan O’Connor (capt), Sam Carter; Greg Jones, Nick Timoney, David McCann.
Replacements: Marcus Rea for Jones (21 mins), Eric O’Sullivan for Warwick (46 mins), Mick Kearney for Carter (47 mins), Rob Lyttle for Lowry (52 mins), Nathan Doak for Cooney (60 mins), Ross Kane for Moore (71 mins). Not used: Tom Stewart, Angus Curtis.
Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU).