I’m going to start with what may seem like an easy thing to say but IMO it needs to be said anyway. If this match had taken place as the season was originally intended to go, on the last weekend of May rather than August I have no doubt Ulster would have won. I also have no doubt that my pointing that out is of absolutely no consolation to any of their fans reading this, so I will add my apologies.
This wasn’t the first time they had a “home” fixture against Leinster in Dublin. There was also the 2013 Pro 12 final but again, their fans won’t thank me for pointing that out so I’ll leave it there before I persuade them to click away from this site altogether, assuming they haven’t already. My point is that they have had rotten luck in general over the years with things happening beyond their control, and for some reason the luck has been even worse against us.
And in this version of Ireland’s oldest provincial rivalry, nothing encapsulated this better than an incident on 18 minutes. Ross Byrne’s radar with the kick pass is normally flawless, as is his brother Harry’s, yet on a night when both played reasonably well, this was one area where both struggled.
Yet even when Ross did one that hit the Aviva Stadium turf between two Ulster players as you can see by the screengrab, the egg somehow managed to find its way perfectly into the arms of the onlooking Cian Kelleher instead. Fast forward just over sixty seconds; Ross Byrne is slotting over his second penalty on the night, and his third kick over all to stretch Leinster’s lead to 13-0 to ensure the first quarter was an absolute disaster for Dan McFarland’s men.
Even the first five minutes gave us a taste of what was to come. Leinster kicked off towards the North Stand and it seems like all week they had been practising restarts with Hugo Keenan doing the chase because he showed a good ability to get there first and bat it back for his side. With not even a minute on the clock we were rolling through the phases when Ulster’s skipper on the night Sam Carter was pinged for not rolling away and just like that we had a lineout in their 22.
Last week against Munster we got our first try when Robbie Henshaw dinked a cheeky little ball through for his centre partner Garry Ringrose to dot down over the line. While our 12/13 combo was different this week (not to mention the entire starting XV) that didn’t stop Ciaran Frawley, moved out a slot in the backline from 10, trying the same thing, and although Rory O’Loughlin didn’t quite manage to retrieve it this time, Frawley himself was able to pounce on the loose ball and there we were with a strong attacking position on the Ulster line.
About a half dozen phases later it was our own new skipper Ed Byrne getting it down, with a little help from his latching friends Will Connors and Max Deegan, and putting us 7-0 up before an Ulster player had managed to put two hands on the ball. On a night when I was expecting them to come at us strongly from the kickoff to put last Sunday’s disappointment behind them, this was far from it.
Eventually they were able to get some production out of players they would have been counting on. Unfortunately for all the impressive contributions from Marcell Coetzee, Stuart McCloskey, James Hume and particularly Jacob Stockdale at 15 (did enough to warrant test consideration IMO), they just could not turn them into points. This wasn’t helped by not so impressive contributions from other players, most notably half backs John Cooney and, as much as I hate to say it, Ian Madigan on his first start for the province.
The “home” side had two patches of play that were as purple as our jerseys on the night. The first started when a Madigan ball just about evaded enough outstretched Leinster arms to put McCloskey through into our 22 and when they won a penalty to give them their first lineout opportunity from 5m out, it looked like they had a way back into the match.
But then a perfectly timed jump from Ross Molony won it back for us and we were able to clear, and although they had chances to come back at us, a horrible sequence of errors from Cooney (knock on, box kick too far, box kick out on the full) meant they couldn’t capitalise and when Josh Murphy was able to swim through a maul to spoil it just before the break, it meant the duck egg on their side of the scoreboard was preserved.
The second half started better for Ulster, well, I mean the very very start, when Stockdale caught the restart on the run and created some front foot ball in our half, but shortly afterwards Matty Rea was unable to take a straightforward ball and their progress was halted yet again. Even Coetzee’s runs were being thwarted as he found himself into a choke tackle from Bent & Molony and a penalty from the ensuing scrum allowed us to stretch our lead to 16.
Shortly after that score came a mistake from Ian Madigan which I’m afraid might be remembered most of all by his new fans on the night. It was another poor use of the boot from his opposite number and it was heading straight for the former Leinster, Bordeaux and Bristol 10 who had a lot of time to size up his options, but as it turned out it was way too much time as he seemed to relax as it was coming down and it went through his hands. He’s a quality player who will do amazing things in a white jersey, he just needs a bit more time.
In the end it took successive Leinster penalties to put them back with an attacking lineout close to our line, and this time they made no mistake as Rob Herring got one of his trademark scores falling over the line on the back of a maul that found just the right nudge. They even managed to get the next score after Rory O’Loughlin was pinged offside after they had more phases in our 22. They wisely took the easy three to bring them within 6 points and 13m left on the clock.
There is absolutely no doubt that the match was still very much winnable for Ulster at that point. They were scoring points from this second purple patch, the error count was going down as ours was going up. But lady luck continued to shine anywhere but on them as both Jacob Stockdale and Jordi Murphy limped off in the second half, and this was also the stage of the match when we were introducing our own bench.
Much has been said about Leo Cullen being able to use over 50 players a season with little drop in form, and this one is no exception. The amount of competition for places is such that after such a long break, if the first week’s XV is the “Probables”, and the second week the “Possibles”, that makes the bench for the second week the “You’d better do something to get noticed’s”, and here we pretty much had impressive showing from all eight in reserve.
Take Scott Penny and Harry Byrne for example. Scott is already behind a gagillion quality back rowers at Leinster, of which one, namely Will Connors, was tearing it up with another tackle-chart leading tally of 18 (probably would have gone for him over Frawley for PotM but both were definitely worthy). Then there’s Harry, who like I said had an iffy moment or two with the boot after replacing his brother.
But after Rory O’Loughlin atoned for the penalty he conceded by tracking back some impressive Ulster ball work to bundle Rob Lyttle into touch, Leinster were soon back in business and Harry put just the right amount on his kick into space on the far side of the pitch towards Penny who may have benefitted from another Leinster bounce but still had a lot of work to do in getting it over the line. Once again we responded to conceding with a score of our own - without any stats to back me up I reckon we could be the best in Europe in that category.
That put the result beyond all doubt, and although to their credit Ulster tried to win back the restart, we were able to recover and not long after, Cooney capped a night where nothing went right for him by running an interception all the way over our line only for it to be called back for offside and from the resulting penalty, Harry Byrne crashed over after a series of phases to put the cherry on the icing on the cake.
Much like the match that would have taken place at the end of May, this one will be long forgotten by the middle of the week, let alone before any other rugby takes place. All we can really take from it is a snapshot of where the two squads stand at this particular point in time.
When it comes to Ulster, let me be clear - no matter what happened in their 160 minutes of rugby since the break, they are still more than capable of turning things around in time to win a knockout match or two before this season is done. In fact, if McFarland was right about his “sofa” comment last week, then that very knockout rugby could be the very catalyst they need.
As for our side of the equation, well, it’s hard to argue with two wins on the bounce to add to the nineteen from the pre-COVID portion of the season plus the two on the end of the shortened league portion of this Pro14 campaign. It’s like no matter what logistical hurdles are put before our coaching staff, they are able to find a combination of 23 that can get the job done on the day.
Just one little caveat though...only one of those 23 victories earned us silverware, and the streak will have to continue if we are to earn any more. One thing is for sure - we’re going to be given one hell of a test by our next opposition, short turnaround or no. JLP