Match report: Ulster 19 Leinster 38
Match report: Ulster 19 Leinster 38
March 6, 2021 / Conor Sharkey
Leinster Rugby confirmed their place in a fourth successive Guinness PRO14 Final by overwhelming their hosts Ulster at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday evening.
The champions went into this one knowing a bonus-point win for Ulster would jeopardise their place at the head of Conference A.
Instead, they blasted out a five-try, bonus-point win that guaranteed their spot in the final against arch-rivals Munster on 27 March.
Ulster scrum-half John Cooney was over-eager in his pursuit to put pressure on Ross Byrne, handing Leinster the chance to establish field position.
When they did this, the ball was swiftly moved from James Tracy to Scott Penny at the first lineout and, from there, across the three-quarter-line where Robert Baloucoune cut Cian Kelleher down behind the gain line.
The visitors recycled at speed to test the white line of defence, Marcel Coetzee going off his feet at a ruck to allow Ross Byrne to kick the opening points in the fifth minute.
On the restart, Ulster were quick to carry hard from Jimmy O’Brien’s clearance, Devin Toner taking down the countering Michael Lowry.
When Coetzee steamed through Luke McGrath’s low tackle, centre O’Brien showed up to meet the challenge of Coetzee and shake the ball loose.
Referee Frank Murphy came back to bin Toner for a high tackle, despite the degree of difficulty when the tallest man on the pitch met the shortest.
Ulster hooker John Andrew found Nick Timoney at the lineout and the maul travelled all of 15 metres to force a penalty advantage.
Ian Madigan kicked crossfield where Max O’Reilly smartly stayed on the ground and dealt with the considerable presence of Jacob Stockdale.
This time Leinster were stronger in dealing with the maul. Ross Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, James Tracy and Peter Dooley all stood up manfully to close range drives before the power of Coetzee was too much for Cooney to make it 7-3 in the 10th minute.
It was hectic stuff. Stockdale regathered from Cooney’s clearance and Dave Kearney had to be accurate in tackling Baloucoune on the far side of the pitch.
Leinster’s discipline was not to the standard required. Another indiscretion, Stockdale’s touch finder, Alan O’Connor’s lineout grab and Stuart McCloskey’s trademark burst put the home side on the front foot.
Cian Kelleher wrestled James Hume to the floor and Jimmy O’Brien was secure against Stockdale.
But, Ulster were able to keep the ball moving, Madigan releasing McCloskey for a one-handed offload for Andrew to put Baloucoune outside the reach of O’Reilly for 12-3 in the 15th minute.
Worse again, referee Murphy was taken back to an O’Brien tackle on Madigan, sending the former to the bin for a second yellow in the first quarter.
A burst from Josh van der Flier, knocking Eric O’Sullivan backwards, and a stunning fetch by Scott Fardy off McGrath’s bomb were just what the Blues needed.
The front row delivered a scrum penalty and Toner a lineout platform with which to go through the gears, Kelleher and Penny breaking the first line of defence to squeeze a penalty out of hooker Andrew at the breakdown.
Leinster went long at the lineout, Ross Byrne driving onto the ball. They hammered away to draw a penalty.
James Tracy tapped and took off from five metres out, not once, but twice. Ed Byrne trucked hard and Michael Bent barged over for Ross Byrne to convert in the 26th minute.
The ageless Toner recovered from McGrath’s high ball out of the 22. Bent made a serious dent. Byrne put up a skyscraper of a ball which O’Reilly miraculously claimed and Kelleher jump-started an attack.
Van der Flier bounded forward. O’Reilly shot into a gap and executed a superb no-look pass inside to McGrath, who was stopped short of the line by John Cooney.
McCloskey was yellow carded for impeding McGrath as Leinster looked on the verge of going in front.
However, they were content for Tracy to tap and go again. Ed Byrne followed up. Rhys Ruddock had a pop and van der Flier convinced referee Murphy he had grounded the ball.
Out-half Byrne’s conversion slingshot Leinster ahead 17-12 on the half-hour.
When Stockdale stepped inside O’Brien, Kelleher was in position to knock down the pass intended for full-back Lowry.
Then, Andrew Warwick led with his elbow into the neck of Ed Byrne for Murphy to show the prop a red card in the 31st minute.
The Blue tide of possession produced two surging lineout-mauls. The first came to nothing when Kelleher was penalised for a double movement on the ground and the second faltered when a pass went on the floor.
They weren’t quite so generous the next time they came calling from Dave Kearney’s catch and counter.
The handling between forwards Ed Byrne, Toner and Penny was tremendous, the power of van der Flier evident, the continuity mesmerising as O’Brien, Tracy, Toner and Bent made more ground in the lead up to Ed Byrne’s irresistible try, topped up by Ross Byrne’s conversion for 24-12 in the 39th minute.
For good measure, Ruddock smashed Baloucoune in midfield and Kearney forced a knock-on out of Hume to close the half.
The intensity was relentless. Adam McBurney battered O’Reilly into touch. Luke McGrath tested Tom O’Toole on the fringes. Penny broke a tackle and fed Kearney. The wing was just beaten by Lowry in the chase of his own chip.
Leinster’s commitment to tempo was total, Ulster struggling to contain the runners all across the pitch, McCloskey eventually coming up with a turnover penalty at the ruck.
Hooker Tracy was able to get in among Ulster’s big men to snatch a turnover, in return. But, it was soon Ulster’s turn to welcome the breakdown work of Nick Timoney.
Out of nothing, the electric Baloucoune burst through the middle, outstripping two defenders for what looked like a terrific try. But, the score was ruled out because of McCloskey’s obstruction on Ruddock.
In the blink of an eye, Leinster were back on attack, those forwards grinding into the phases. The lineout-maul was the basis for the close-in driving that has become a feature of Leinster’s strategy.
Predictably, when a penalty came their way, they opted for the tap-and-go from five metres again.
That was good for yet another penalty and a warning from referee Murphy before Ruddock touched the line for Byrne’s extras to make it 31-12 in the 58th minute.
Immediately, the visitors were asked to defend as Tullamore’s Cormac Izuchukwu made an instant impact from the bench for Ulster and the combination of Luke McGrath and Peter Dooley kept McCloskey out.
From the subsequent scrum, Ross Byrne put Lowry down, Ross Molony drove O’Toole backwards. O’Reilly and McGrath halted Rob Lyttle and Rory O’Loughlin prevented O’Toole from grounding the ball.
Another scrum. Another defensive set. Kelleher smacked into Sean Reidy. Ross Byrne hauled down Stewart Moore. Kearney wrapped up Baloucoune and O’Reilly snatched the ball away from Baloucoune the next time the ball came right.
Ruddock was binned for a no-arms tackle and all of Ulster’s effort was finally rewarded when Nick Timoney got under Dooley for a try converted by Lowry in the 74th minute.
Leinster finished the game on top, their lineout clicking, the maul moving with menace to cause Izuchukwu to be binned for a no-arms tackle.
Dan Sheehan was on target to Josh Murphy at the lineout and the replacement hooker got around in support to drive to the line, Byrne’s conversion closing the show.