58% possession. 54% territory. 5 points scored.
Rarely do so few numbers tell you the full story of how 80 minutes went, but for me, those do for this final. And hopefully enough people know me to vouch that I don’t mean to highlight them to put down the Ulstermen.
Because by “normal” standards, when they fell 15 points down there was over a half hour left and as they showed last weekend in Edinburgh, we knew they have the means to find their way back. In fact, even without that semifinal evidence, they had shown all season they can get results in big matches, and their date in Toulouse next Sunday is proper reward for that.
And then there was Leinster’s side of the equation, where things were far from rosy throughout the match. Lineouts were going awry, questionable decisions were being made...this was by no means a perfect display from us by any stretch of the imagination.
Yet we have to go back to those words “normal standards”. As a fan, no matter how much faith you might have in your heroes, we dare not tempt The Rugby Gods to make any assumptions no matter how wide the margin of lead, or no matter how little is left on the clock. But when we look back on this contest knowing the final score, we can see a clearer picture of what was actually going on.
Ulster were simply never going to add to their early try. It just wasn’t happening.
For all the lineouts that ended up in their possession, for all the times we took risks that weren’t needed given the lead we had, even for all the time the proven quality in Ulster’s attacking arsenal was able to make a bit of headway, the muscle memory of Leinster's defensive patterns always managed to find a way to dissolve the danger into nothing.
I suppose the best starting point when looking at the action is that one Ulster score on the night, since it was also the first in the match. And as much as I might not want to throw shade at Munster in this piece either (honest!) I can’t help but note the irony that not only did the try come from an attacking box kick (unlike the many that failed last week) but it also was done by their former scrum half Alby Mathewson.
No doubt Dan McFarland’s biggest headache going into this showpiece was how to get around Leinster’s infamous D. And one thing is for certain - if you get a sniff of broken play ball, you have to seize the opportunity and make the most of it.
So when Mathewson’s kick into the Dublin evening sky came down with strong support from white jerseys, it seemed to be knocked on by Jordan Larmour only to fall into the arms of Caelan Doris. When referee Andrew Brace allowed play to go on I was worried this could be a controversial incident that would be talked about ad nauseum - only we knocked it on again moments later and suddenly Ulster had a fraction of a chance.
They shipped it out wide and Garry Ringrose, Leinster’s skipper for the night, shot out of his line to anticipate the point of contact only to let both McCloskey and Lowry get by him so when the ball reached the former, they had decent front foot ball. The Leinster D still wasn’t quite set and there was a massive gap between Caelan Doris (who was frantically signalling for help) and Rónan Kelleher on the far wing, with 6 Ulstermen stacked out there to take advantage.
I have been critical of Alan O’Connor in the past, suggesting despite not seeing him week in week out that he is no more than a “squad player” but in this match I thought he did really well, and here when the ball arrived to him (arrow pointing to him above) he knew exactly what to do to open the space. With a little help from a sweet blocking line by prop Tom O’Toole, the lock was able to slip a ball to his outside centre Jimmy Hume, who was easily able to get around Kelleher.
Getting the rest of the way to the line would have been a challenge to most, but Hume showed why his coach has kept faith in him by not even considering using his support to power his way over past the diving tackle attempts of both Lowe and Keenan. A quality score, first blood to the Ulstermen, it looked like we had ourselves a final.
But when Billy Burns missed the easy-ish conversion, you couldn’t help wondering if they’d regret losing out on those two extra points. Leinster have always had a knack of replying in kind shortly after conceding a score, and after our box kick catching began to improve courtesy of Larmour and Lowe, Ringrose atoned for the earlier misread when he followed up his own scrum half’s high ball with a big hit on Lowry at the 22 - this eventually led to our first decent attacking lineout chance of the night.
The catch was taken, the maul was set, the backs put in motion. To their credit the Northern tackling was also really good at times and after 15 phases James Lowe was being bundled into touch until he cleverly offloaded it to a surprised Hume who gave us back possession from the lineout. Again we won our own set piece, and Ross Byrne had seen a kick go out on the full a bit earlier so here he chose to run himself at the Ulster defence, doing very well to establish front foot ball in their 22.
Carry by carry we inched closer to their line but it was clear that something a bit extra was needed to get it that final metre. Luckily we had just the man wearing the 9 jersey - threading the needle with a bullet of a long pass is a forté of Jamison Gibson-Park, and having started the series with a decent catch from a high ball, continued it by earning a lineout when most wouldn’t, it was finished by James Lowe who took the pass and dotted down. Byrne nailed the extras and bam, we’re in the lead for the first time.
It was a cracking match at this stage, and another purple patch for the Northerners made it even better. Jack Conan drew the ref’s whistle more than once, giving them their own attacking lineouts in our 22. In my preview I pointed out that this was an area where both starting hooker Rob Herring and sub John Andrew have shown an ability to get on the end of scoring plays from mauls.
Well the first one in this sequence was at the 22, and again we had a player making up for earlier sins when it was Conan tackling the ball out of the hands of Marcus Coetzee in the 22. Later they had another chance to find touch closer to our line and I really thought Burns made an error not getting it the maximum distance. Instead of 5m out, the set piece was more 7 or 8 and this turned out to be enough for our defence to keep them out until Andrew Porter burrowed his way into a breakdown to earn a clearing penalty.
An important question to ask - could Ulster have taken more place-kicking opportunities in this spell? Certainly the common thinking in cup rugby is “always take the three”. But knowing the strengths of this team, I honestly wasn’t that surprised to see them go for the try. In fairness they needed every point they could get and you have to credit them for backing themselves. Again, I just think their chances would have been better had Burns gotten everything out of that touchfinder.
Yet in the midst of all these scoring opportunities that were going a-begging, we actually managed to nab three points of our own down the other end, albeit after opting for the corner ourselves after the first lineout in their 22. When the second went the same way, we took the safer option, though we could afford to, having the lead as we did.
So it was 10-5 at the half, and cliché or no, the next score was going to be crucial. On their first possession after the break, Billy Burns, who did not have a good night at the office whatever about the ability of the defence he was facing, put his kick way too long and a few phases after Larmour ran it back into the Ulster half, Sean Reidy, who deserves a mention for his match-leading 23 tackles, made one off the ball on Ringrose which was rightly pinged, allowing Byrne to stretch our lead to 8.
This was still a catchable margin for Ulster. Burns put his restart long and straight down the middle, probably hoping for a lineout well into the opposition half. Gibson-Park had other ideas, however, and without hesitation he unleashed an absolute monster of a return punt that found touch beyond their halfway line.
Shortly after the resulting lineout, the starting Ulster out-half’s disaster of a night was complete when his pass that was meant for Coetzee was picked off by Robbie Henshaw who had an easy sprint under the posts. A little bit in Burns’ defence, he did have the red scrum cap of Josh van der Flier catching his eye as he turned to make the pass and possibly didn’t spot the other Leinster player. But still it really was a match-killer as having gone into the break just one score behind, they now had to find at least three.
Again to their credit, they never stopped trying. Many a comment was made on the Twitter machine about a 6/2 split on their bench that was not only between forwards and backs, but also between those who once played for Leinster and those who didn’t. But even as the "finishers" were folded into the equation, the likes of Ian Madigan, John Cooney, Jordi Murphy and Jack McGrath were unable to make any headway.
Meanwhile Leinster had a recognisable name or two of their own ready to add to the fray before the game was done. Ross Byrne must have been well chuffed handing over the reigns with a 15-point cushion, and despite what many said about Sexton’s omission from the starting lineup, Byrne played the bulk of this campaign in the 10 jersey.
But if we’re going to single Leinster starters out at this stage, I have to go next to van der Flier, who was worthy Player* of the Match. I may have only mentioned him once so far in this piece, but that’s kind of the point. Even with the unmissable headgear, Josh is a master of the “unseen work” and more often that not his considerable influence is only noticeable on replays. Having missed out on his chance to keep up with Will Connors in the final minutes last week, he grasped this one with both hands and played a blinder. Many were ahead of him on the Leinster tackling charts (Conan 20 Kelleher 18 Henshaw 17 Toner 16 Doris 15) but his work rate still deserved the gong.
And that leads me nicely back to the Leinster defence, which easily saw home both the victory and the 77-minute shutout. Caelan Doris did crash over the line towards the end but that was merely the whipped cream atop the cherry on the icing on the cake.
Like I have said before on these pages, you’ll rarely see a highlight reel on YouTube of “The 10 best multi-phase denials by a defence” but if you did one for this season in the Guinness Pro14, most of them would be from Leinster, and actually, more than one would likely be from this match.
Maybe one day I’ll have the time to make one of those clips myself, because I could watch it on a permanent loop. Crash-ball carrier met by not one but at least two - one going low, one for the ball (see lead pic). Everyone else staying away from the breakdown to set what I call the “Cordon Blue” across the pitch, ready to hit the next guy. Time and time again the series ending in a knock on, or a jackled penalty, or some other kind of error from the attacking team.
It’s an ability that has befuddled 13 other clubs in this league all season. Sure even when we only managed the three points ourselves we still managed to win AND make it look comfortable. I have done my best to honour the Ulstermen in this piece, but for the most part it has to be all about what has been as perfect a campaign as any team could have hoped for. Would we have won the six other matches that were lost to COVID 19? Given we were able to use 53 players without missing a beat, who’s going to say no to that?
The celebrations were fitting. No blazers allowed on the pitch so we got to give out the medals ourselves, and as everyone expected, Rob & Ferg had the honour of lifting the trophy. Hopefully the boys were able to enjoy a pint on the night, but I’m also hoping they didn’t go much further than that.
We don’t want to appear too arrogant as Leinster fans (well most of us anyway…) but on occasions like these it’s important to put things into context. A 7th Celtic/Magners/Rabo/Pro12/14 title is an absolutely amazing achievement, and a 3rd on the bounce with a 100% record is even more so. But no matter how much most clubs would kill to have that to their name, we now must completely forget it, and I'm sure Leo, Stuart & co feel the same.
Because while we may have won 17 in a row on the way to this crown, the overall streak is actually 25, and the last team to beat us was one which happens to be both European Champions and headed for the second tier of English rugby all at once. We face them next week. They might be missing a star name or two, but for the next calendar year they literally have nothing else to play for but this match. That’s all that matters now. I’ll have a fan of theirs on the pod this week to give a view from their side of the fence, so stay tuned… JLP
LEINSTER'S 2019/20 PRO 14 CAMPAIGN