I’ve harped on Ulster’s bad luck against Leinster many times over the years, but it’s still the kind of thing that needs repeating every time until the cycle is broken, and looking at the talent coming through the ranks at the province like Aaron Sexton and Cormac Izuchukwu, it surely won’t be long before it is.
But let’s face it - going back to 2012 when they had a great team which got all the way to a Heineken Cup Final only to run smack into an even greater Leinster team, the rugby gods have done anything but smile on our northern cousins.
Then there was earning a home Celtic League final in 2013 only to have to have it moved to the RDS where they also faced us, which was one of the more “you couldn’t make it up” examples, though there have also been several incidents of controversy, injury and outright tragedy which has deprived them of a host of their best players. I love supporting my team and I delight in defeating rivals as much as the next sports fan but you’d need a heart of stone not to see what it has been like for Ulster fans.
And of course the reason I bring that up here is that yet again we have 80 minutes which fits the same narrative like a red glove. The scores may have been double at both HT and FT, and you could argue that Leinster might have won even if the teams stayed 15v15, but it still has to be said that we got the rub of the green once more.
In my post-match tweet I said I’d leave my thoughts on the controversial incidents to the writeup so I suppose the best way to tell the story of the match is to provide a timeline, and having watched it a second time I reckon it’s the best way to relate what happened as the vast majority of the scores can somehow be directly related to the talking points.
Many times I have pointed out how Leinster have gone 3-0 down in the opening few minutes only to claw our way back once we started seeing some possession...well, in the early stages on Saturday evening it looked as though we were going to see that in reverse.
First Marcel Coetzee was pinged (harshly, I thought) for not rolling away at one of the game’s first breakdowns and this allowed Ross Byrne to settle his kicking boots by putting the ball between the uprights. From there Ian Madigan took the restart, it went to Jimmy O’Brien in our 22, he cleared to the Ulster half where it was taken by Michael Lowry, the talented full back chose to run the ball back at us, and there is where it all began.
But before I start listing these incidents, a general point on where I’m coming from. I don’t subscribe to all this “ruining the game” talk when it comes to yellow or red cards. The way I see it, each incident has to be taken on its own, unless of course when we are dealing with cumulative fouls for a player or the whole team.
It should not matter a jot whether it’s the first minute or the last, nor should it matter whether or not the referee has just sent a player from the same team to the naughty step. If the action merits the sanction according to the Laws, then the sanction should always, always, always be applied.
That said, we are human beings not robots. Even the best referees can’t be immune from the situational aspect of a decision, and if you can remember back to when the Kingspan Stadium would have been full to capacity for a visit by the boys in blue, there would be the added pressure of knowing a reaction was bound to follow your whistle. So I guess I’ve used way too many words to say “it’s far from easy and I’m just glad it’s not me who has to do this”.
Right...back to our example. Lowry is running into the Leinster half until...
Devin Toner yellow
Bam. Arguably the smallest guy on the pitch runs right into definitely the tallest. He can’t NOT tackle him. But unless he goes to his knees, the contact was always going to be high and sure enough, that’s exactly what happens. The play goes on but the TMO rightly draws the ref’s attention to the challenge.
Could it have been red? I very much doubt anyone would say yes. Plenty of mitigation, but definitely worth the yellow in my book, so suddenly Ulster have not only an extra man but also a brilliant early attacking opportunity in our 22. Lineout, maul all the way to 5m from our line, and another penalty, so another lineout. This time 4 phases after the maul, Coetzee crashes over and suddenly it’s 7-3
James O’Brien yellow
Just a couple of minutes later Ulster were back down our end of the pitch again, this time because a tackler wasn’t rolling away. From the lineout we saw their backs in full flow much like we expected. It’s quite the line with just the right mix of guile, strength and speed from Cooney all the way to Lowry and here they made full use of the extra man stretching our defence back and forth across the pitch culminating in Balacoune brilliantly finishing in the corner.
It really looked like the winger must have had a foot in touch on first glance but the replay shows that although Max O’Reilly made a decent attempt at stopping him, he fell on the wrong side and if anything helped him stay in play and it really was a great score for the home side which put their tails up with a 12-3 lead.
However...in the course of the build up a pop pass from Hume to Madigan forced Jimmy O’Brien to rethink his tackle. Our 13 had clearly intended to stand up to his opposite number to hold him up but when his target changed, he was never going to be in the correct position yet he went ahead with the challenge anyway, forcing their heads to collide.
Again it definitely flirted with red territory since there was contact with the head, but again Murphy sought mitigation and kept it at yellow. As for Madigan, he probably should have gone off for an HIA but then again he was very influential in the linkup play that followed the collision. Kudos to Leinster skipper Luke McGrath for cheekily asking the ref if the yellow meant the try was disallowed!!!
Not long afterwards I was very surprised to see Cooney kick ahead when his backs had their next opportunity to stretch our now 13-man defence, especially as Toner was just about ready to return. They nearly won it back on the chase but knocked it on instead and it was at this scrum that the match completely turned on its head.
With our engine room now restored (not a single scrum as Dev was off, more bad luck) we proceeded to absolutely muller them in this set piece, with young Scott Penny revelling in his new number 8 role by displaying that oft-unappreciated role of the position by keeping the ball at his feet until the whistle blew.
Now it was our turn to have some possession deep in their half, and another penalty, this time against Tom O’Toole for not rolling away (though I thought a tackle shortly before this from him on O’Loughlin was also a shade high), got us even closer to the line. We had more good fortune when an overthrown dart still ended up in Leinster hands but from here it was Ulster's turn to ship the penalties.
In these situations this season Leinster are one of many teams bringing the “tap & go” back into fashion when the mark is in a central position. And you can see why when we invariably turn them into either further penalties or actual tries.
Some are beginning to question of the legality of the setup. Instead of a “truck and trailer” formation, it’s more like a jet aircraft with engines attached to each wing as the carrier, invariably the hooker and in this case James Tracy, has teammates either side of him latched on to help him towards the contact. Why opt for a scrum when you can have a detached front row of sorts running at them unopposed for 10 metres instead?
Anyway it wasn’t long before we were picking and going our way towards the line until it was that man Michael Bent, having arguably his best season ever, crashing over. So all of a sudden, having been 9 points and 2 men to the good, from that one big scrum now the margin had become only two and just before the restart, Jimmy O’Brien returned to the field.
Stuart McCloskey yellow
This needs some context as it is the middle part of a trilogy subplot within the match. First we had a high ball well caught at midfield by Max O’Reilly, who is growing into his full back role by the week. A few phases later he had another carry which saw him surging through a gap before chucking a very “Antoine Duport-esque” offload over his shoulder to Luke McGrath who in turn got deep into their 22.
But when you look at the gap run through by O’Reilly you can see blocking lines run by two Leinster players which were, well let’s just say “borderline”. And with Stuart McCloskey knowing a thing or six about how to get through that particular channel, he would have noticed this and might have been a tad annoyed as he joined his team’s scrambling defence.
A few phases later he reached out and swatted the ball away from McGrath and since it was front foot ball as well, Frank Murphy had no choice but to go to his pocket despite his protestations. It was another penalty close to the line and since it worked before, why not go to the tap, latch & go again so now it was Josh van der Flier’s turn to get it over.
Just like that we were 17-12 to the good. What else could possibly go wrong for the home side?
Andrew Warwick red
This started with a strong run by Jacob Stockdale into our half as Ulster tried desperately to rediscover that early spark. But unfortunately others tried a bit too hard. If I were to look for mitigation on this challenge it would be that I don’t like any player standing up in the tackle. I know why we do it as it may lead to a choke tackle but it really is putting yourself in a dangerous position.
And when Andrew Warwick took this carry towards Ed Byrne, it seemed to be instinct that had him arching his arm just before contact. And what's more he was only on the pitch a hot minute as he replaced the starter Eric O’Sullivan. So when his forearm met the throat of Byrne, there was really only one outcome. Murphy again looked for mitigation but his TMO intervened - I’m not sure about this dynamic but once he said it that way, it had to be red though I still think it was the right call.
So there we were. A 9 point lead with 2 extra men had now become a 5 point deficit with 2 men down. And to add further insult, it was Ed Byrne himself who bagged our third try just before McCloskey was able to return to the field leaving the halftime score 12-24.
Balacoune disallowed try
Leo Cullen would no doubt have been reminding his players what happened against Glasgow the previous week when they too saw red late in the first half. They really had a go at us in the third quarter and there was no reason to assume Ulster were going to do any different. And when Balacoune sprinted through a gap to go under the posts on 49 minutes, it really did look like we had a game on our hands again. But...how did he get through the gap?
I can probably appreciate Ulster’s frustration here more than any other time, and this incident rounds off the McCloskey trilogy. Now he was the one running the blocking line and it looked to me like Rhys Ruddock bought it and went to tackle him, allowing Balacoune to run behind him. However if you look at it as though Ruddock was actually aiming at Balacoune, then suddenly McCloskey becomes an illegal blocker and that’s what the officials went for, so no try. No luck at all either.
Next it was a high tackle by Sean Reidy which put us back in their 22 and would you believe it but on the end of all the taps and goes and latches and one out carries who was it but Rhys Ruddock getting it over for the bonus point try.
Josh Murphy yellow
You certainly could never say Ulster threw in the towel, but this next sequence showed even more positives on Leinster’s side of the ledger. A penalty around halfway gave the home side their first attacking opportunity in our 22, and as the dart was sent towards the lineout, the clock stood at exactly 61 minutes.
The visit to our end of the pitch was capped off by Nick Timoney getting over the line for some consolation, but not until the time had ticked all the way past 72 minutes and even then it was helped by Josh Murphy being shown yellow after a team warning (though that card could have come much earlier in the sequence to be fair).
In between there was an absolutely ferocious battle, starting with a very brave (yet also a bit too “stand-uppy” for my liking) tackle from Ross Byrne but between the continued tackles and ball held up over the line and scrum resets, each passing second devalued the points gained from the try.
And just to cap things off, the Leinster bench wasn’t happy with just a strong defensive stand - when it was our turn down the other end, albeit 15 v a tired 14 I know, it only took us 3 minutes to go from a lineout in their 22 to getting our fifth try as Dan Sheehan peeled off a maul to get it down.
So there we had it - of course it was a shame to see a match so affected by a series of cards, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that each incident needed some kind of action. And having outlined Ulster misfortune as best as I could, I can now point out the many positives that I saw on Leinster’s side, like the strong scrummaging, performances of youngsters like Penny and O’Reilly, and the top notch organisation of our defending right to the end.
Now while we wait for our Champions Cup last 16 opponents to be drawn on Tuesday, we now know that we get to prepare for it by facing another team that is highly motivated to change recent history in Munster, and this will be for the honour of lifting the 2020/21 Pro 14 title.
As for Ulster, I hope I come across as genuine when I say I hope their fortunes change soon, if not against us so much!!! With the talent they have surely it has to come right for them soon, and with both Challenge and Rainbow Cups still on the immediate horizon, their season is far from over yet. JLP