Leinster’s hopes of defending their GUINNESS PRO12 crown are all but over after they suffered a deflating 26-10 loss to provincial rivals in rain-hit Belfast tonight…
Matt O'Connor's men stormed into a 10-point lead inside the first seven minutes at Kingspan Stadium, with Jimmy Gopperth kicking a penalty and converting a fine individual try from centre Ben Te'o.
But yellow cards in each half for Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney, coupled with some loose play and turnovers, hampered Leinster's chances of making it six successive wins against the Ulstermen.
The home side edged 13-10 clear for half-time following a try from man-of-the-match Iain Henderson and eight points from the boot of Ruan Pienaar.
Half-backs Pienaar and Paddy Jackson increased their influence in the second period, the former booting two penalties to widen the gap to nine points and Jackson providing the final pass for Craig Gilroy's clinching 72nd-minute try.
Despite the best efforts of the Leinster bench and a yellow card for Ulster replacement Andrew Warwick, the visitors were unable to force their way over for a late try as they fell to their third defeat in four league games.
If the Ospreys pick up at least two league points against Cardiff Blues on Saturday, it will confirm Leinster's absence from the PRO12 play-offs with two rounds remaining.
O'Connor's side were first to knock on the door, Gopperth powering through a midfield gap to spark a furious early salvo from the visitors. Henderson's monster hit on Mike Ross preceded a couple of penalties, the second of which Gopperth sent through the posts for the opening score.
Te'o soon took up the baton, taking a great line to hand off Roger Wilson, charge into the Ulster 22 and crash over to the right of the posts past Tommy Bowe and Louis Ludik. Gopperth swiftly added the extras.
After Pienaar was short with a long range penalty, a brilliant break from Jackson saw Ulster immediately increase the tempo. Bowe and Ludik make further inroads before Pienaar's inviting pass had Henderson bursting onto the ball at pace to run in a well-worked 12th-minute try.
The margin was down to 10-7 following Pienaar's conversion, and Leinster's early lead was completely erased when the South African's right boot punished an O'Brien offside.
O'Brien found himself in the sin-bin entering the second quarter – picking up a yellow card for what was deemed a dangerous challenge on Henderson – and it was Ulster who looked the better outfit during a showery spell.
Franco van der Merwe and Henderson made their presence felt in the difficult wet conditions, but Ulster failed to profit from their numerical advantage as Pienaar, kicking into the wind, drilled a penalty wide from distance.
Despite that, Neil Doak's charges enjoyed the better of the territorial battle approaching half-time and following strong carries from Jared Payne and van der Merwe, Pienaar split the sides on the scoreboard with his second successful penalty.
The second half was lit up by another terrific early surge from Gopperth, who broke over halfway but crucially lacked support. A lineout steal robbed Leinster of a mauling opportunity close in, but there were positive signs as Cian Healy and O'Brien made headway with ball in hand.
At the end of a rather listless third quarter, Jackson almost created a try for Gilroy with a well-weighted kick in behind the Leinster defence. The winger jumped for the ball, gathered it and touched down past the left corner flag but he was denied by a foot in touch.
However, Ulster were back to their clinical best in the 62nd minute when Ludik sped through on a weaving run out on the right, Bowe was up in support and covering full-back Kearney was pinged at the subsequent ruck for being off his feet.
With Kearney's indiscretion close to his posts earning him a yellow card, Pienaar took the three points on offer and the Springbok followed up with his best kick of the night soon after, finding the target from just inside the Leinster half.
The Blues now had it all to do at 19-10 down and time running out. Ulster really had the bit between their teeth and with the visitors' defence worn down by muscular carries from Henderson and Stuart McCloskey, Jackson's inside pass released Gilroy for another accomplished finish at great pace.
Pienaar converted Gilroy's 11th try of the PRO12 campaign and some resolute Ulster defending prevented Leinster from replying in the dying minutes, even after prop Warwick saw yellow for infringing at a maul near the try-line.
ULSTER SCORERS: I. Henderson (1 try), C. Gilroy (1 try), R. Pienaar (1 conversion and 4 penalties)
LEINSTER SCORERS: B. Te'o (1 try), J. Gopperth (1 conversion and 1 penalty)
ULSTER: Louis Ludik; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Rory Best CAPTAIN, Wiehahn Herbst, Dan Tuohy, Franco van der Merwe, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
REPLACEMENTS: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Bronson Ross, Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys, Stuart McCloskey.
15. Rob Kearney
14. Zane Kirchner
13. Ben Te'o
12. Gordon D'Arcy (Ian Madigan, 63)
11. Luke Fitzgerald
10. Jimmy Gopperth
9. Isaac Boss (Eoin Reddan, 67)
1. Cian Healy (Jack McGrath, 58)
2. Richardt Strauss (Sean Cronin, 58)
3. Mike Ross (Tadhg Furlong, 63)
4. Devin Toner
5. Mike McCarthy (Ben Marshall, 67)
6. Dominic Ryan (Jordi Murphy, 51)
7. Sean O'Brien
8. Jamie Heaslip CAPTAIN
REPLACEMENT NOT USED: Darragh Fanning.
REFEREE: John Lacey (IRFU); ASSISTANT REFEREES: Leo Colgan, Olly Hodges (both IRFU); CITING COMMISSIONER: Eddie Walsh (IRFU); TMO: Seamus Flannery (IRFU).