Leinster put past disappointments behind them to scoop an elusive RaboDirect PRO12 title in head coach Joe Schmidt’s last game in charge…Joe Schmidt post-match reaction…
Jonathan Sexton signed off before the British & Irish Lions tour with 14 points as his home province were crowned champions for the first time since 2008, ending a run of three successive league final losses.
New Zealander Joe Schmidt, who will take over the Ireland job later this year, bowed out with a much-prized domestic and European double – eight days on from his side’s Amlin Challenge Cup success.
A resilient Ulster certainly put it up to Leinster in this all-Irish decider, with their South African star Ruan Pienaar kicking immaculately in an 18-point haul.
But tries in each half from back rowers Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, allied to some rock solid defending, got Schmidt’s side over the finish line.
Sexton booted three penalties after converting Jennings’ early try as Leinster – without late withdrawal Rob Kearney (tight hamstring) – ended a hugely physical first half with a 16-6 lead.
Despite leaking a succession of penalties, particularly at the breakdown, the Ulstermen remained in the hunt thanks to Pienaar’s opening two kicks.
The place-kicking battle continued after yellow cards for Robbie Diack and Isa Nacewa – in his final professional match – with Pienaar drawing Ulster back to within four points.
However, Heaslip’s try entering the final quarter proved to be enough to seal it in favour of the men in blue.
Speaking afterwards, Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt said: “It was a pretty nerve-racking way to go out. I don’t think we managed the last quarter of the game.
“We gave them the ball back too many times. Ulster are too good a team to give the ball back to. Our defence was first rate today.
“We managed to hang in when they had a lot of pressure in the first half and in the last quarter we did pretty well. It’s a massive credit to the team.”
He addd: “It’s three years on, six years older. It has been nerve-racking quite often, for example today was no different. The PRO12 is very, very tough. It is a super competition. Anyone of the top six teams could have won it.
“When you do get through to the play-off games it is very tough all the way. It is phenomenal to have three trophies in the changing rooms at the moment (including the ‘A’ team’s British and Irish Cup).
“It is a massive credit to our players. We focused on our attack for the Amlin and focused a little bit on defence for this game.”
Table toppers Ulster designated the RDS as their home venue for the league final – with Ravenhill not meeting the minimum 18,000 capacity mark – and they wryly renamed the Dublin venue ‘OurDS’.
They got off to a disappointing start, leaking four penalties in the opening seven minutes as Leinster raced into an early 10-0 lead. Sexton converted man-of-the-match Jennings’ try and added a straightforward penalty.
Mark Anscombe’s men were too eager at the breakdown, the opening penalty offering Sexton a chance to find the right corner and from the ensuing lineout maul a well-supported Jennings crashed over.
Sexton slotted the conversion and then clipped over a penalty from just outside the 22, with Ulster growing increasingly frustrated by some of referee John Lacey’s calls.
They showed their set piece strength after Nacewa was charged down and Isaac Boss had to concede a five-metre scrum. Johann Muller’s pack hunted for a penalty try but Leinster just about survived.
Tommy Bowe hurtled through midfield soon after, linking with Paddy Jackson and a raid out to the right almost led to a Robbie Diack try – Sexton and company doing just enough to hold him up.
Ulster kept knocking on the door and deservedly got off the mark in the 24th minute, Pienaar curling a penalty over after a robust Nick Williams charge.
On the half hour, Ulster had a let-off when Sexton missed a kickable penalty awarded for Chris Henry interfering with Boss at a ruck.
It was wholehearted stuff, the derby nature of the final leading to a suffocating breakdown area and some frantic spells of possession.
Pienaar’s second three-pointer was sandwiched by two more Sexton strikes, the Dubliner’s final effort from the kicking tee coming on the stroke of half-time.
Worse followed for the vocal Ulster support when flanker Diack saw yellow for another ruck offence, the resulting penalty seeing Sexton strengthen Leinster’s advantage early in the second period.
However, Ulster reacted smartly and made serious headway approaching the hour mark. A smashing break from Paddy Jackson led to Nacewa being sin-binned for pulling the young Ireland international back by his collar.
Pienaar took centre stage, quickly adding three points to Ulster’s tally and the Springbok converted two more penalties – the first after a great kick chase by Bowe – to suddenly make it 19-15 with the wind literally now in Ulster’s sails.
Leinster though struck a killer blow when Sexton found a terrific touch from a penalty, the ball was worked infield through patient phases and Heaslip, with the support of Devin Toner, powered over from close range.
Sexton was unable to convert and a monster effort from the talismanic Pienaar brought Ulster back to within a converted try with just 10 nervy minutes left.
But unlike a year ago against the Ospreys, Leinster did not falter late on and the victory completed a stellar eight days for the province with the RaboDirect PRO12, Amlin Challenge Cup and British & Irish Cup titles all secured.
LEINSTER SCORERS: S. Jennings (1 try), J. Heaslip (1 try), J. Sexton (4 penalties and 1 conversion)
ULSTER SCORERS: R. Pienaar (6 penalties)
15: Isa Nacewa
14: Fergus McFadden
13: Brian O’Driscoll
12: Ian Madigan
11: Andrew Conway
10: Jonathan Sexton
9: Isaac Boss
1: Cian Healy (Jack McGrath, 77)
2: Richardt Strauss (Sean Cronin, 29-40, blood sub)
3: Mike Ross (Jamie Hagan, 75)
4: Leo Cullen CAPTAIN
5: Devin Toner (Quinn Roux, 73)
6: Kevin McLaughlin
7: Shane Jennings
8: Jamie Heaslip
REPLACEMENTS NOT USED: Rhys Ruddock, John Cooney, Andrew Goodman, Dave Kearney.
ULSTER: J Payne, A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, T Bowe, P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller CAPTAIN, D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams.
REPLACEMENTS: R Herring, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, I Henderson, M McComish, P Marshall, M Allen, P Nelson.
REFEREE: John Lacey (IRFU); ASSISTANT REFEREES: George Clancy, Peter Fitzgibbon (both IRFU); 4th & 5th OFFICIALS: Leo Colgan, Olly Hodges (both IRFU); TMO: Dermot Moloney (IRFU).