Aimee Clarke celebrated her debut for Leinster with a hat-trick in the decisive six-try defeat of their hosts Ulster in the Women’s Interprovincial Series at Dromore RFC on Sunday afternoon.
Leinster coach Adam Griggs went for five new caps from the start, four of them in the back division, where Ireland centre Sene Naoupu, formerly of Connacht, was tasked with taking control from out-half.
Interestingly, the entire back three of full-back Susan Vaughan and wings Megan Williams, both Irish Sevens internationals, and Clarke fell into this category.
Up front, the uncapped Aoife McDermott was surrounded by a host of internationals which would collectively have been prepared to take it to Ulster in the early going.
The choice of Naoupu at 10 hinted at a ball-in-hand approach from Leinster that was made easier by a lovely afternoon for rugby.
They had to be careful to use their experienced set of forwards to establish a platform from which to play.
Leinster got nothing easy, especially in the first quarter, as Ulster were fired-up and physical in the exchanges as prop Ilse van Staden, hooker Beth Cregan and flanker Gemma McCutcheon looked to lay down the law.
They also had the backing of the decision-making of out-half Larissa Muldoon, their captain, and the playmaking skills of centre Nicole Caughey.
Slowly, Leinster started to take a grip, eventually working an overlap for the speedy Clarke to find the corner flag in the 26th minute.
At once, this seemed to release the pressure valve for the Blues to express themselves.
Lindsay Peat burst through the middle for the second try after the referee had called ‘last play’ to double the lead.
The Ireland loose-head has never been one to spurn an opportunity to take space and she had too much gas for the defence to make it 10-0 at the interval.
No doubt, Ulster had to have the next score or there would be a bleak outlook.
Instead, Leinster centre Michelle Claffey stepped around three defenders for a superb individual try which was converted by her midfield partner Aine Donnelly for 17-0 in the in the 45th minute.
There could have been a rout on the cards as Leinster’s leaders began to up the ante with some nice link play.
However, Sophie Spence was yellow carded to balance up the action and Ulster took advantage to strike through their left-wing Eliza Downey.
The Leinster back-three were a handful on the ball and accurate, quick hands opened the way for full-back Susan Vaughan to secure the bonus-point in the 63rd minute.
A slew of replacements and tired legs left gaps that were taken by Clarke for her second try in the 75th minute.
Replacement Meaghan Kenny wasn’t long on the field when she was binned before Ulster finished for a well-deserved second try.
There was still time left for Clarke to conclude the contest with her hat-trick in a debut she will never forget.
“The performance was good in parts. We scored some beautiful tries with really good off-the-cuff rugby,” said coach Adam Griggs.
“But, we certainly left a few opportunities behind. We will look to rectify that next week.”
Speaking of which, Connacht are looking like the surprise package from their narrow win over Munster at The Sportsground on Saturday.
Leinster will host the Westerners at Donnybrook next Saturday, 9th December, at 5pm.
“We will have to be careful in our defence,” added Griggs.
“They played some really good rugby to come from 10-0 down to beat Munster. We will be up against it.
“We need to step up one more level. They have threats all across the park and we will have to be ready for them.”
Ulster 10 Leinster 34
At Dromore RFC – Ulster 10; Leinster 34 (A. Clarke 3 tries, M. Claffey, S. Vaughan, L. Peat try each; A. Donnelly 2 cons).
15. Victoria Irwin; 14. Emma Jordan, 13. Brittany Hogan, 12. Nicole Caughey, 11. Eliza Downey; 10. Larissa Muldoon (Captain), 9. Kathryn Dane; 1. Ilse van Staden, 2. Beth Cregan, 3. Sorcha Mac Laimhin, 4. Hannah Beattie, 5. Rebecca Smyth, 6. Gemma McCutcheon, 7. Lesley Megarity, 8. Lauren Magennis.
Replacements: Aishling O’Connell, Neve Jones, Helen McGhee, Amanda Maginn, Storm Cobain, Amy Graham, Peita McAlister, Teah Maguire.
15. Susan Vaughan (Railway Union) / Maria Kenny (Old Belvedere) 75 mins
14. Megan Williams (Old Belvedere) / Meaghan Kenny (Railway Union) 76 mins
13. Aine Donnelly (Old Belvedere)
12. Michelle Claffey (Blackrock College)
11. Aimee Clarke (Railway Union)
10. Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere)
9. Ailsa Hughes (Railway Union) / Megan Parkinson (Wicklow) 74 mins
1. Lindsay Peat (Railway Union) / Caoimhe Molloy (Gorey) 76 mins
2. Cliodhna Moloney (Railway Union) / Jennie Finlay (Old Belvedere) 70 mins
3. Fiona O’Brien (Old Belvedere) / Christy Haney (St Mary’s) 75 mins
4. Aoife McDermott (Railway Union)
5. Orla Fitzsimons (St Mary’s)
6. Sophie Spence (Old Belvedere) / Meg Kendell (Railway Union) 60 mins
7. Ciara Cooney (Railway Union) / Rachel Horan (CYM) 75 mins
8. Paula Fitzpatrick (St Mary’s) CAPTAIN