Given it was a massive moment in a massive match, this was to be a massive decision.
I guess my use of the word “massive” is relative, especially in these uncertain times. Nobody knows how this season is going to play out; Pro14, Champions Cup, Six Nations and Lions Tour are all in jeopardy for reasons way above rugby’s pay grade.
But I think I can safely speak on behalf of all Irish rugby fans when I say that in this particular moment, none of that was being considered. Leinster, fresh off a disappointing performance the previous weekend, had to catch Ulster on the Conference A table if we were to have a hope of winning another league crown. We had three tries on the board at this stage, yet only a 5 point lead, and had earned a penalty in a reasonably kickable position.
Taking the three points would have meant Ulster needed two scores making our victory all the more secure. But going for the corner and taking full advantage of the set piece would bring a critical bonus point into the equation.*
Apart from one impressive conversion from the touchline, Johnny Sexton wasn’t having his best evening from the kicking tee, so maybe that was on his mind when he informed James Ryan he had chosen a lineout but I’d like to think it was more out of confidence born from Leinster’s overall second half display where we had already shown an ability to turn a visit to the Ulster 22 into a try.
Sure enough after Ross Molony secured the dart and the maul was set, James Tracy got on the end of it and followed it all the way to the line to fall over in the corner and make his captain’s decision entirely justified.
And as a bonus on top of the bonus, even though the conversion was from the same spot as Sexton’s earlier effort, Ross Byrne was called upon and he nailed it, stretching our lead to 12 and giving the visitors the task of crossing our line for the first time on the night in the dying minutes if they were to go back to Belfast with anything.
Full credit to the Ulstermen; they were hell bent on breaking that duck. Shortly after the restart Luke McGrath was pinged for waiting too long to take the ball from a breakdown (first time I’ve seen that called this millennium, let alone this year), giving them a chance to come at us one last time and boy, did they come at us.
The first wave was 20 phases that got them from halfway to our 22. That doesn’t sound like much of an achievement until you consider the overall tenacity of the Leinster defence, especially this season by our bench players in the closing minutes. There, they won a penalty which Ian Madigan duly popped into the corner. By now the clock had ticked past the 80 minute mark so it was now or never.
Another ex Blackrock boy Nick Timoney gathered this lineout and they hopped back on the “phase train”. Being in the 22, the Leinster D got that much more stingy and for a full 24 phases this time, their carriers were hit by double tacklers and driven back about 10 metres before working their way back and starting the process again.
Finally you had their sub scrum half David Shanahan firing a pass towards his outside centre James Hume. Well, it was definitely caught by someone wearing 13, but not the intended one. And just in case you’re reading this in the future and need reminding, for this match it was Ross Byrne wearing blue 13 and he ended the late siege.
Leinster’s starting lineup for this crucial fixture was definitely a lot stronger than the previous week and included some welcome names returning from injury like Jordan Larmour and Ed Byrne, but it was the sight of Ross’ name at 13 that caught the eye, especially when the Ulster centre partnership of Stuart McCloskey and James Hume had played such a large part in their 10 wins on the bounce to start the campaign.
Clearly this wasn’t a move out of desperation; Jimmy O’Brien has played there before and was on the bench. So there had to be a specific role in mind for Ross here. My first thought was “12, sure, but why 13?” Well, as it turned out, he did play more as a playmaking 12 throughout, but that’s not to say he shied away from key elements of modern centre play like breaking the gain line and reading the point of opposition attacks.
Hugo Keenan was awarded Player of the Match and definitely had a blinder, coming up with key carries to get us into a winning position, but if the choice were mine I’d have given it to Ross, even before his pivotal pilfer right at the end. The award would have been not only for his acquitting himself in a new role at senior level, but also for his coaches who devised it.
What was most amazing about Ulster’s frenetic late search for a consolation score was that their position had changed so much since the break. In the first half they were pretty much camped in Leinster territory and had to be more than happy with a 9-5 halftime lead, especially when 6 of those points came with Marcel Coetzee in the bin.
Now for the tricky portion of the writeup; I can’t stall this any longer. Thanks to the actions of others I have to be very careful about how I evaluate the performance of Andrew Brace.
He took a lot of stick after the Autumn Nations Cup final; I’ll defend the right of fans to offer opinions on everyone involved in rugby but NOT when it’s in the form of pointless abuse personally directed towards them in ways like using their @ handle on Twitter to make sure they see it. So I hope that my having an issue from this match doesn’t lump me into a category with the likes of them.
Generally all I ever ask of a ref is that they clearly outline their decisions and it has to be said that Brace is very good at this and displayed it on the night. Even Johnny Sexton didn’t escape his assertiveness and that’s great to see. Where I had a problem with the ref on this occasion was his overall approach. Yes, it was an interpro ahead of a Six Nations, yes it was a crucial encounter in the Pro14, and yes, it would be ideal to keep it 15 v 15 as much as possible.
But my general opinion is that Brace went too far with that last thing. Several times you see him get ready to blow his whistle before stopping himself and then we have the whole area of high tackles. I’m a Leinster fan and this is a Leinster site so obviously I’m going to focus on challenges that were made on Leinster players - I make no apologies for that and I know there were some incidents that went the other way. You’ll just have to believe me when I say those should have been dealt with as well.
But it was just the way Brace talked himself out of sanctioning both challenges by Coetzee in the first half. For the first, it was true that Andrew Porter had lowered his position before the contact though I still wouldn’t say he was “ducking into it” - also, there was an element of “swinging” in Coetzee’s motion that should have at least been mentioned.
Then for the second incident on Sean Cronin, again Brace went looking for “mitigating circumstances” when there seemed to be even less. Again, I know I have blue goggles, but I saw, first contact with the head, no wrap and Cronin’s position remaining the same.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that when it comes to high tackles, the zero tolerance guidelines should always trump the desire for mitigation whatever the occasion and whatever the team in question. Also there were later high challenges by McCloskey (penalised but could have been yellow given it stopped a clean break into the 22) and Burns (shot on Larmour before he was held up over the line, not even noticed by commentators) which I’d argue might not have happened had the earlier one been fully dealt with. Sorry for harping on that for so long, also if it sounds “one-eyed”, but I reckon it’s a talking point and that’s my opinion.
Right - back to the rugby. The first half was overall a curious beast. Ulster spent most of the time in our half like I said, but it was still Leinster who looked more like crossing, and we actually did on our only real chance thanks to Jamison Gibson-Park’s ability to fire a perfect miss pass parallel to the try line and Dave Kearney’s ability to defy physics with his diving leap into the corner despite the attention of two Ulstermen.
But with Sexton’s wayward boot denying us a further five points to our total in that half, it was John Cooney who was able to make the most of kickable chances to give his side the lead, which meant we were facing two defeats on the bounce at the RDS for the first time.
Thankfully we made the right adjustments during the break. Clearly the intention was to claw back advantage in the territory stakes and with good support for the various forms of kicks ahead, such as Sexton stabbing one into a gap leading to Lowry getting nabbed by Hugo Keenan, we were able to force penalties that put us into try scoring positions.
Not that those positions were ones we’d be guaranteed to convert, mind you; if we had a top Achilles heel in recent times it would be winning our own lineout in prime attacking situations. Well a dart or two did go astray on the night for us, but not when it really mattered. Just three minutes into the second half it was Cronin getting on the end of a maul after his own successful dart, and when he broke away nothing was going to stop him getting to the line.
About ten minutes later we had Keenan working his magic with his fending arm, putting down two would-be tacklers to get to the line before Larmour got it over only to be held up. This time we needed a solid scrum to provide a scoring opportunity and again we managed it.
Ulster were determined not to give our forwards the honours so here it had to be Robbie Henshaw, who in fairness didn’t hurt Ross Byrne’s quest to make our centre pairing look settled, who got it over the line and this time he had to get through about four opponents to do it.
Meanwhile Rob McFarland’s men tried their best to help celebrate his new contract in style by getting down the other end but we kept sending it back with interest. As well as Byrne, Keenan, Kearney and Henshaw performing well on the night there was also Larmour, Doris and Fardy stepping up. And while our starting halfbacks took a lot of stick online they weren’t without their own key contributions either.
So overall a very satisfying performance for Leinster fans. Sure, we have to be concerned about what lies ahead on the fixture calendar. If anything is dispensable it surely has to be that Rainbow Cup, interesting a prospect though it might be. But we’ll just have to let the “alickadoos” deal with all of that.
For now I’m just happy that after Leinster had so many wins on the bounce brought to an end, we managed to bounce back so well here, and from an Irish rugby perspective, even though our trip to Thomond was postponed this series of interpros had to be hands down the most entertaining ever, which is really saying something given the overall circumstances. JLP
*Last week I harped on the possibility of changing the try bonus point system in all forms of senior rugby to one where rather than simply scoring four tries, you must instead score three tries MORE than your opponent. I’d just like to point out here that at the moment I describe to start this writeup, Leinster were actually already in a position to earn that bonus point.