Sean Cronin scored the only try of a bruising and defence-dominated GUINNESS PRO12 derby as Leinster overcame Ulster 8-3 at the RDS tonight…
Leo Cullen's men claimed a deserved victory to get back on track after two disappointing weeks in Europe, with man-of-the-match Luke Fitzgerald, Josh van der Flier and Martin Moore standing out.
In a cagey first half with few moments of real quality, Ulster's stubborn defence eventually gave way as hooker Cronin drove over from a 36th-minute lineout maul to give Leinster an 8-3 lead. Jonathan Sexton and Paddy Jackson had kicked early penalties.
The Ulstermen, with just one interprovincial win in Dublin since 1999, stayed in the hunt through some strength-sapping phases. Leinster managed to hold them at arm's length despite some incisive running from Stuart McCloskey and Craig Gilroy.
Cullen admitted afterwards that it was 'an important result' and 'a huge defensive performance from both teams', while there will be concern over the injuries picked up by Luke McGrath, who had to be replaced at scrum half 31 minutes in, and second half replacement Noel Reid who was stretched off in the closing stages.
Ireland out-halves Sexton and Jackson swapped penalties inside the opening quarter hour, the latter scoring at the second attempt after a strong spell of carrying from the Ulster forwards and big centre McCloskey.
Sexton then found Fitzgerald with a pinpoint cross-field kick past halfway, but the supporting Isa Nacewa – a late inclusion at full-back for Rob Kearney (tight hamstring) – was swiftly bundled into touch.
Leinster carried more of an attacking threat in the second quarter, Sexton's looping pass inviting Fitzgerald forward on the left wing again and Andrew Trimble had to concede a five-metre lineout. The hosts were held up from close range and the prolonged spell of pressure near the Ulster posts petered out with a loose Nacewa pass.
Leinster's persistence eventually paid off approaching the interval. Although Robbie Diack denied them initially with an athletic steal, Cullen's side got a second lineout right and the subsequent maul saw Cronin gleefully crash over. Sexton missed the left-sided conversion with a poor strike.
A barnstorming run from Rhys Ruddock saw Leinster begin the second period with a bang, however Sexton's inviting pass was knocked on by Ben Te'o with the try-line at his mercy.
Rory Best came to Ulster's rescue as he held up van der Flier past the whitewash following a powerful run from Tadhg Furlong, and the visitors dug deep to claw back possession and territory, a Peter Nelson kick finally bringing them back into the Leinster half.
It was Leinster's turn to scramble back after Trimble exploited some space on the left wing, but a well-won Moore penalty broke up a promising Ulster spell. Holding the lion's share of possession, Leinster were unable to add to their lead and frustratingly for Les Kiss, the Ulstermen could not get back into scoring range.
Ian Madigan pushed a long range drop goal effort wide and Leinster relied on their well-organised defence to see them home, the fresh legs of James Tracy and Ross Molony up front helping them to claim a very hard-earned triumph.
LEINSTER SCORERS: S. Cronin (1 try), J. Sexton (1 penalty)
ULSTER SCORERS: P. Jackson (1 penalty)
15. Isa Nacewa
14. Zane Kirchner
13. Ben Te'o
12. Ian Madigan
11. Luke Fitzgerald
10. Jonathan Sexton (Noel Reid, 66; Garry Ringrose, 66)
9. Luke McGrath (Eoin Reddan, 31)
1. Jack McGrath (Peter Dooley, 60)
2. Sean Cronin (James Tracy, 60)
3. Tadhg Furlong (Martin Moore, 50)
4. Devin Toner
5. Mike McCarthy (Ross Molony, 66)
6. Rhys Ruddock
7, Josh van der Flier
8. Jamie Heaslip CAPTAIN
REPLACEMENT NOT USED: Dominic Ryan.
ULSTER: Peter Nelson; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Kyle McCall, Rory Best CAPTAIN, Wiehahn Herbst, Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Sean Reidy, Nick Williams.
REPLACEMENTS: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Ricky Lutton, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys, Louis Ludik.
REFEREE: John Lacey (IRFU); ASSISTANT REFEREES: Andy Brace, Olly Hodges (both IRFU); CITING COMMISSIONER: Eugene Ryan (IRFU); TMO: Dermot Moloney (IRFU).