Sunday, March 13, 2022

Ulster-18 Leinster-13

DOUBLE TROUBLE


Normally a top of the table clash should hold top billing on a given weekend in a given season, yet as we all know there's nothing normal about this nor the last two campaigns.

And it has to be said that in every respect this contest played second fiddle to what happened at Twickenham earlier the same day. Not only did the Six Nations clash deprive the Kingspan of attention (with the Wonderful Wolfpuppies chipping in as well) but there was a host of talent taken from both of these great provincial sides as well.

Oh, and there was the seemingly endless rain.

But whatever the circumstances, the match points and bragging rights were still there to be won and there's no denying that they deserved to go Ulster's way, although while I predicted they'd win by about this margin in my preview, the 80 minutes didn't really go the way I thought they would.

I certainly never expected us to feel disappointed with a losing bonus point, strange as that may seem coming from a Leinster fan. To me it looked like they'd blitz us in the opening stages and build a big lead which we would slowly claw back in the final quarter while still falling short. Then at halftime I thought if we got the first score after the break we'd definitely go on to win. So it shows how much I know!!!!

Anyway maybe I should stop harping on what I predicted and get on with what actually happened...

0-20

We all know what happened in the first minute in Twickenham which set the course for the rest of the match. Well in this one, there was also a sign, albeit much more subtle.

Last week against Benetton we pretty much put on a seminar in lineout technical operation, meaning most chances in their half turned into a score. Here after we took the kickoff and Nathan Doak punted to touch, James Tracy's first dart was disrupted by Ulster jumpers and suddenly they were on the front foot, and it wasn't to get much better for us in this crucial area.

Then after the early play settled into the battle of defences you'd expect with these two well-drilled squads, we saw another affliction befall the visitors which was to become a pattern - a series of promising phases coming to an end with a knockon which, while understandable in these conditions, still have to be cut out in these tight contests.

And when Mike Lowry's clearance got the Ulsterest of Ulster bounces, somehow rolling along the touchline in play before scooting just enough to make it a 5022, it gave the home side their first attacking opportunity of their own. Their first lineout also went badly for Leinster as we shipped a penalty from the jump, allowing them to pin us back even further towards our own line.

SIDEBAR : Just a query on the new Laws I'd like to throw out there...if Lowry's kick was indeed a 5022, why was the subsequent lineout thrown from outside the 22? Apologies for the crude screengrab having the play button from URC.tv on it but you can see what I mean. Not suggesting anything sinister was going on, but I was curious about this as it might have had implications for our clearance had we pinched the lineout.

From 5 metres out, there's not many better sides at converting into tries, and after a short series of phases, we'd been stretched enough for Sam Carter to crash over, giving Ulster the first score I had been dreading.

But we did come roaring back right from the restart, getting into their 22 several times for the remainder of the first quarter. Unfortunately the linebreaks and crossfield kicks and such were followed by more knockons, so we only had one Ross Byrne penalty to show for it but at least we got on the board.

20-HT

We continued to press and with the rain still teeming down started to go the aerial route with much success as first Matty Rea and then Michael Lowry spilled the catches putting us in their territory.

And remember when I said earlier that "from 5 metres out, there's not many better sides at converting into tries"? Well, we're one of the few and when awarded a penalty under the posts we were only ever going to tap and go before doing our own seige on their line until Max Deegan (said it many times on these pages, if he and/or Scott Penny are playing, at least one will score) got it down.

Unfortunately we didn't feel comfortable with the 10-7 lead, conceding a pen shortly after the restart allowing Nathan Doak to put the sides level. And just in case there are Ulster fans noting my namechecking of Messrs Rea and Lowry for mistakes, I should add that they went on to make a key turnover plus a scintillating break from deep respectively putting them back on the front foot.

Eventually they worked an overlap out wide leaving Tommy O'Brien in two minds and when you're up against talent like Lowry and Balacoune in this situation, you know you're in trouble. Was there a "flat pass" or two along the way in this move? Maybe. But when the score counts, all you can do is admire the work of a top quality backline and Lowry provided the finish.

Doak put the conversion wide leaving the margin at 5 and while I felt we could have gotten more from this half, given how I was feeling at kickoff I thought a 5-point deficit at the break was something we could work with, especially with an extra forward to spring from the bench.

And when Luke McGrath shaped to box kick from a maul around halfway as the clock read 39:48, it looked like we would see out the half but the ball got caught in the Belfast breeze bringing it out on the full and shortly after the lineout in our half, referee Frank Murphy pinged Joe McCarthy for a needless breakdown no-no when it was actually Peter Dooley, starting as a late replacement for Ed Byrne, allowing Doak to push his side two scores ahead at the break.
SECOND HALF

No real point splitting this 40-minute spell into quarters.

With no let up in the precipitation during the interval there was only one strategy that made sense for both sides - kick, kick again, then kick some more until the other guys blink, and when Craig Gilroy did just that after 41 minutes, the chasers pounced earning a penalty that Ross Byrne slotted to make the score 18-13.

But wait. That was the final result, wasn't it? So for 38 minutes of the second half there was nothing doing on the scoreboard? Yep. And the stats for that period tell you all you need to know about what happened. Leinster had 58% of the ball yet because we kept kicking it away, our hosts would run it back at us which explained their having 58% of territory.

Since Ulster's backfield continued to struggle under the high ball, we had plenty of chances to attack their line when we did get forward, only for the lineout yips to continue with Tracy's efforts continuing to lead to scrappy ball at best and his replacement Sean Cronin didn't fare much better with a couple of crooked darts.

But it wasn't all about our mistakes and the inclement weather - much credit has to go to the Ulster defence which earned the second half try shutout with a strong rearguard effort that included late try-saving tackles from Balacoune (on Tommy O'Brien who has done a few himself of late) and Lowry.

There was also the fact that all of the top four tacklers on the night were Ulstermen with skipper Alan O'Connor, Marty Moore and Nick Timoney all breaking the 20 barrier and Jordi Murphy chipping in with a meaty 14 in his 25-minute cameo. It was up to us to break them down and we simply couldn't.

Possibly it would have been better to reward one of the above as Player of the Match, but then again on a night like this when there wasn't going to be a lot of running with the ball, Michael Lowry's try plus his trademark adventures from deep, which included one from his own tryline to outside the 22 late on, earned him the gong in the end.

Congrats to the Ulstermen for doing the double over us and I'd be very surprised if the two sides don't meet again in this season's competition before it's done.

HARPIN' POINTS

For Leinster the last two weeks have shown us exactly how much a functioning lineout means to us. Without clean ball last time out, no way would we have racked up 60+ points. This time, the inaccuracy arguably cost us the 5 points we were short at the end, although we still had the Ulster D to contend with.

On the positive side of things, Joe McCarthy has been a revelation in our second row. All you generally want from rookies is the basics yet he has taken to this level with a confidence that far surpasses his 20 years, including very impressive handling skills out of the tackle. Though our schedule only gets tougher from here, he has definitely earned the right to more game time.

We must also see the losing BP as a positive, if for no other reason than it keeps us clear atop the URC table, albeit by a point. All things considered, 20 points out of a possible 25 since that disappointment in Cardiff wasn't a bad haul at all.

Plus after Ed Byrne's late withdrawal it meant we had another newcomer to our senior ranks, I'll let Leinster superfan Miriam Collins give the details...


WHAT'S NEXT

So the boys have a week off but then if it wasn't the "business end of the season" already, it really will be when we return to action. There's still Munster to play twice plus the two-match South African tour, but next up is March 26th's dress rehearsal of the Champions Cup first leg clash at the Sportsground.

I'm going to wrap up this article here as I've another one to do on Twickenham so I will leave you with a selection of online comments at the full time whistle, thanks as always for tuning in. JLP

*****
We normally do a separate post featuring online comments from the full time whistle but due to the quick turnaround for the writeup we'll add a few here instead - many thanks to all who contributed as always!
Paul Smith Given the respective sides and home advantage Ulster were always going to be favourites tonight. From a Leinster pov, while a win would have been nice the next best thing was to deny them a BP and pick up one ourselves and from that perspective it's job well done, as we remain top of the league tonight. Its likely we'll meet again this season and with a full side available I think Leinster would fancy their chances of a little revenge.


Chris Brownfield (reply to Paul Smith) not likely. Ulster were whipping boys, but since our young lads, have come through.our academy with multiple wins against Leinster, on their journey, they don't have those fears or memories of always losing to the Blues. Our lads respect all sides, but fear none.


Colin Mcconaghie From an Ulster viewpoint the weather really didn’t make for a high scoring game. I thought once we started to deal with the high ball Leinster ran out of ideas. Lowry was the stand out with ball in hand. Was never going to be an easy game for Ulster, it seems there’s only a “weak” Leinster selection when they lose. Good competitive game given the conditions and both should now be involved in the playoffs end of season when anything can happen.


Kevin OCeallaigh Hopefully this will be the last of the “our non-six nations players are better than your non-six nations players” type of game for a while. If we had all of ours and they had all of theirs, this would be a very different match. URC have promised to fix it…fingers crossed.


Conor Cronin A tough challenge to go north with so many players missing, but a good job to keep them to so few points. A better game management might have exploited any weakness in their back 3, but that's hindsight. Team did a reasonable job of securing a losing BP and let's build on this for 2 weeks time


Andrew Potts Disappointed


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