Conference B winners Leinster were pipped by provincial rivals Ulster 14-13 at Kingspan Stadium where Leo Cullen gave some valuable game-time to his extended squad, including Academy lock Ryan Baird who made his debut in the second half.

The Guinness PRO14 play-off picture was already clear for both sides as Leinster had already sewn up top spot and Ulster’s recent win at Edinburgh secured their second place finish. Tries from Jimmy O’Brien and Fergus McFadden, sandwiched by a Ross Byrne penalty, gave the visitors a 13-7 half-time lead in Belfast.

Forward pressure and a succession of penalties saw the Ulstermen hammer away at the Leinster line in the third quarter, with sin-binned lock Oisin Dowling paying the price for those infringements. The hosts’ patience was rewarded when man-of-the-match Marcus Rea drove over for a 60th-minute match-winning try.

Replacement Barry Daly almost responded but he injured his arm when attempting to score from Ciaran Frawley’s kick through. Cullen’s charges will be back in PRO14 action when they host their semi-final at the RDS on Saturday, May 18 (kick-off 3pm), with the opponents either Munster or Benetton Rugby who meet at Thomond Park next Saturday.

24-year-old out-half Ross Byrne captained Leinster this evening for the first time, while former Ireland centre Darren Cave, who is hanging up his boots at the end of the season, led Ulster for this interprovincial derby.

Storm Hannah ensured some tricky conditions, including a swirling wind, and the slippery ball foiled full-back O’Brien early on, following good work by Nick McCarthy to spring Bryan Byrne through a gap. Captain Byrne was unable to reward the Leinster scrum with the opening points, sending a 10th-minute place-kick wide of the target.

Defences were on top during some scrappy phases either side of the first quarter mark, but the attacking quality improved with Ulster-bound prop Jack McGrath providing a solid scrum platform for Leinster. In response, Ulster’s back-line clicked with Johnny McPhillips dinking an inviting kick through for Michael Lowry to burst onto but the visitors were able to force a turnover.

The breakthrough finally came in the 29th minute when some promising play through 14 phases ended with Byrne fizzing a flat pass out for the waiting O’Brien to collect and slide over for his third try of the PRO14 campaign. Noel Reid’s clever midfield pass and Joe Tomane’s decoy run were key elements of the build-up. The conversion from out wide was missed by Byrne.

Ulster hit back quickly with a seven-pointer from scrum half David Shanahan, the home attack ignited by a couple of purposeful runs from Cave and Lowry. Shanahan was the link man, carrying twice and as he was not held in a tackle close to the Leinster line, he managed to get up and ground the ball despite the best efforts of McCarthy. McPhillips’ conversion moved the hosts in front.

However, Leinster were the better team in the final minutes of the first half. Dave Kearney went close to scoring their second try before Byrne regained the lead with a 39th minute penalty. Using an Alan O’Connor penalty to press from a late lineout, Reid’s sharp distribution was evident again as he was twice involved, flinging a pass wide for a bandaged McFadden to squeeze over in the right corner.

Frawley and Peter Dooley were early entrants on the resumption, with Reid taking over the captaincy from Byrne, but Ulster were led back into scoring range by the fast-breaking Lowry and the supporting Shanahan. A bout of dogged defending kept them out until a fourth penalty led to Dowling’s yellow card. Leinster continued to make their tackles in what was developing into a real arm-wrestle.

Nonetheless, Ulster’s persistent attacks were rewarded when debutant Rea spotted some space at the side of a ruck, showing pace and power to hurtle through and turn in a double tackle from Caelan Doris and McCarthy to get the ball down to the left of the posts. Peter Nelson’s conversion proved to be the final scoring act in a closely-fought final quarter.

Dublin University clubman Baird, a member of Ireland’s Under-20 Grand Slam-winning squad, replaced Dowling in the engine room, and Leinster’s best chance to answer back came from fellow replacement Frawley’s kick at the end of an incisive attack. Daly unfortunately was unable to touch it down before the end-line, and Ulster closed out the result thanks to a scrum penalty and a Cave turnover in the dying minutes.