“Are you ready to order, sir?”
“Yes, I notice that all you have on the menu is humble pie?”
“For you, definitely, that is correct.”
“Well I suppose I’ll have some of that please!”
“Excellent choice, sir. And for you we’ll make sure it’s an extra large helping.”
First, I must hold my hand up high and admit I was wrong with my prediction for this match.
Officially, based on recent form, my prediction has to be Ulster by 5-7pts. Does that mean I don’t think we can do it? Of course not – I guess it’s just my head ruling my heart on this occasion.
Hardly a George Hook-ian prophecy of doom and gloom for the sake of it, and I did have a reasonable amount of justification. But I should have had faith. I should have known that there was enough pride in the jersey not only throughout the Leinster squad and coaching staff, but also throughout the fan base.
What an amazing atmosphere there was down the RDS. Full credit to the OLSC for the abundance of blue flags around the stadium it was an amazing sight to see.
Of course what made said abundance necessary was the large amount of white flags courtesy of the visiting Ulster support, which was just as impressive making it yet another occasion for which Irish provincial rugby can be proud. I hope I come across as sincere when I say that I can at least appreciate to a degree the frustration they must have felt after yet another defeat to this opposition.
You don’t have to go too far beyond the most fundamental stats to see where this match was won...the scoreline for the second, third and final quarters combined was 18-17 to the visitors, so it’s in the first 20-25 minute spell when Leinster did the bulk of the work in forging their lead which proved unassailable.
This is something I have been harping on all season...since the return of Kurt McQuilkin to the coaching ranks our defensive organisation in this competition has been superb - even after shipping 49 points in our last two regular season matches our “points conceded” total was 17 ahead of the next best team.
But there’s not much point in keeping the opposition’s score relatively low if you’re unable to get your own side of the scoreboard moving, and the ideal time to do that is in the early stages of a match. And see what I said about the “next best (defensive) team” in the last paragraph? It just so happens that it was Ulster. So we definitely had our work cut out, but all I wanted was some kind of sign from the kickoff that we had a plan to somehow knock them off their game that couldn’t possibly be described as “predictable”.
Well when I said “from the kickoff” perhaps I didn’t mean it literally, but that is exactly what happened. Johnny Sexton’s drop kick from the centre spot was very nearly snagged by Luke Fitzgerald and it was to be a first in a series of almost telepathic link-ups between our returning left winger and his halfbacks in that opening spell.
I mean it wasn’t as though he had a slouch under the high ball as his opposite winger - it was Andrew Trimble for crying out loud, but led by our numbers 9, 10, and 11 we ran amok down that touchline, putting us into prime attacking position virtually every time. First it was the kickoff, then it was box kicks, then it was a dash from Luke right in front of the Anglesea Stand crowd...and if the first few phases of an attack didn’t look like ruffling Ulster’s front line, Sexton was able to continuously drop the ball on sixpence deep in the corner of their 22.
But in case I give the impression that our early success was down to just three players, I should point out that particularly in that first quarter, all clad in blue were doing their part, whether it was running in support, tackling, clearing out...pretty much everything.
After one perfect Sexton kick to the corner, Ruan Pienaar made very poor work of his exiting box kick allowing Devin Toner to pluck it out of the sky and put us right back on the offensive. From here we were quite literally relentless...carry, present, clearout, repeat, over and over until referee Ian Davies put out his arm for a penalty advantage but we weren’t happy with that - an exquisite long pass from Reddan found Isa in a fraction of space on the touchline from which he was to make the maximum amount of use, allowing his momentum as he was tackled at the line to help get the ball over.
Then came a sweet conversion by Sexton and we were up 7-0 …from there we kept the pressure up enough to force a couple of kickable penalties to make it 13-0 with just 15 minutes gone. Naturally nobody in the ground thought this match was over and sure enough Ulster were able to work their way back into it before half time.
While our focus seemed to be linking up our halfbacks with our number 11, when Les Kiss’ men starting having time on the ball they were going a similar route, though with a slightly different take on what to do. The idea was to create space for Craig Gilroy on his touchline and let him do as much damage as possible.
Eventually this did work a treat with Gilroy getting his side back into the match with a try, but the fact that it took them so long, plus that it was right over in the furthest corner, showed Leinster’s defensive line was as strong as it had been throughout the campaign. Still, that prolonged period of Ulster pressure earned a couple of kickable pens as well so with Jackson failing to get the conversion from the touchline it left the halftime score at 13-11 and still very much “anyone’s game”.
Funny though...you’d think my pre-match pessimism would have had me worried at half time, but I really, really wasn’t. Somehow witnessing that Isa try unfold right before my eyes gave me the impression, even if I wouldn’t say it out loud, that we “had this”. But it was all down to how we handled the early stages of the second half.
And when the mercurial Iain Henderson stripped the ball off of Jack McGrath (who had a fine outing himself overall) and surged into our 22, it looked as though our early lead could have been wiped out altogether. Until the entity I refer to as the “fifteen-headed blue monster” took centre stage, however.
There had to be at least 20 phases. On about three occasions, their passes went to ground but somehow they avoided a knockon. On at least another three occasions, our linespeed not only had the tackle made but saw the Ulsterman put at least five metres back behind the gainline. It was an amazing sight to behold - everyone knowing what their role was and executing it to perfection - what more can you ask for?
Eventually it was Jamie Heaslip spotting the ball available at the back of the ruck that allowed him to go in, cause some mischief, and ultimately win his side a penalty. My first reaction was to start typing out a tweet on my phone akin to “That defensive stand was as good as seven points to Leinster”.
Luckily I chose to hold off until after our attacking lineout before sending that tweet. Some strong running from Garry Ringrose and a sweet offload behind the back of his tackler by Ben Te’o found the ball in the hands of Heaslip and nobody was going to stop him getting the ball over that line. Another fine strike by Sexton made the lead a very much defendable 9, and now I could send my tweet with its proper wording.
This had to be a killer blow for Ulster. Though the earlier 13-nill deficit was greater they had a lot more time on their side at that stage. With about half an hour left now and Leinster’s defence playing the way it was, the seeds of doubt had to be sprouting - and no amount of mental preparation could have wiped the many recent disappointments at this venue from their memory.
Biggest telltale sign was an Ulster scrum around halfway...some say it was a “strike against the head” but for me it was more of a mixup between Pienaar and his loosehead who kicked the ball towards our side of the scrum allowing us to gratefully secure it. Not long afterwards, we secured a penalty on our own put-in which stretched our lead to 12.
It is this scrum dominance that I felt helped Jamie Heaslip win his man of the match award. Sure...the steal and the try (and assist a bit later) played a part, but when we hear forwards getting credit for work in the scrums it’s almost always front rowers these days...I used to be one myself so I shouldn't really complain, but there’s a lot to be said for the skill of a number 8 holding the ball in when there’s a good shove on and Jamie is up there with the best in the world at it.
And so we kept turning the screw and after Sexton’s umpteenth pinpoint territory kick into their 22, Ulster made a bit of a hames of their lineout allowing Toner to put us on the front attacking foot once more.
Now to a brief word on referee Ian Davies...I gave him a bit of stick for his performance during Leinster v Munster at the Aviva and I feared he’d have a similar outing here. For the most part, he did ok although in the series leading up to the third Leinster try I felt Chris Henry was systematically doing all he could to get himself put into the sin bin (deliberate knockon, illegally taking the ball out of a scrum, side entry at the breakdown on the try line, you name it) so I thought maybe the ref should oblige him, but perhaps he was being merciful given the scoreline.
Eventually we were able to make the dominance tell and it was Heaslip providing the final pass for Sean Cronin to barrel his way over and put the result beyond...well, maybe not ALL doubt but certainly Leo the Lion’s share of it.
Fair play to the Ulstermen - they decided they weren’t for throwing in the towel altogether. We nodded off a bit after the restart and the visitors pounced to win the ball back...shortly afterwards they had earned themselves an attacking scrum 5m out from our line.
Just before the put-in I tried to be all “pundit-like” by commenting to my friend beside me that while you may well eventually breach this amazing Leinster defence, it will always take you a rake of phases, a chunk of time, and even then it would only be right over in the corner. Cue Craig Gilroy notching his second try of the night after the first strike phase off the scrum, under the posts no less allowing for an easy conversion. Shows how little I know!
I made up for this shortly afterwards, however, when I pointed out that Ross Molony’s introduction could mean we’d have a decent chance of poaching a lineout and sure enough as Ulster threatened again in the closing stages (probably still too late for a comeback but you never know…) the youngster managed to bat the dart down allowing us to clear.
Once the clock went red it was Sean Cronin who was able to boot the ball into the delighted RDS crowd and that was that.
When I watched this back on d’telly I had a choice of three different languages - Gaeilge on TG4, “Ulster-centric” on BBC2NI and “Stu Barnes-ish” on Sky. I chose the middle one in the end and I have to admit it was hard to see Rory Best give his post-match interview.
As Leinster fans we know all too well about the process of having an “Everest” of an opponent but this thing the Ulstermen have with us has gone beyond anything we ever had with Munster. And as I said at the start, I had a really bad feeling going into this one that they were going to have a game similar to our day in Croker back in 2009. It just wasn’t to be.
There will be time again to analyse where Ulster got it wrong. And there will be time again during the week to look at Connacht’s amazing season and how we as Leinster will handle having the entire rugby universe outside the 12 counties wanting us to lose next Saturday.
But given the remit for this piece is simply the one match, let me bring it to a close by re-stating just how delighted I was to be wrong with my negative outlook on Friday afternoon. And while focusing on the team effort has prevented me exploring too deeply some more fine individual displays (from Jordi Murphy and Dave Kearney to name just two) if anyone deserved the bulk of the credit, it has to be Leo Cullen. Whatever he did between the Kingspan and the RDS, even if it was very little allowing those beneath him to work away, he must be commended.
Now, to Murrayfield. Bad guys or no, with another 80 minutes like this, we will give ourselves every chance to bring this campaign to an end in the best possible fashion. JLP
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