Late tries from Josh Murphy, Fergus McFadden and Adam Byrne made the difference at Navan RFC today as Leinster claimed a 17-point victory over Ulster in an entertaining Bank of Ireland pre-season opener.
Dan Leavy and Jack Conan were on the scoresheet either side of a Mark Best try for Ulster in the first half, and even though Robert Lyttle responded for the visitors after the break, a powerful finish from Leinster ultimately determined the outcome.
Leo Cullen had a mixture of youth and experience in his starting line-up, with recent recruit Niall Morris – who has returned for a second stint at Leinster following a successful five-year spell with Leicester Tigers – featuring at full-back.
Former Blackrock College starlet Nick Timoney was named at openside flanker in a youthful Ulster side, but it was Leinster who broke the deadlock on 11 minutes. A strong maul forced the visitors onto the back foot, and flanker Leavy was on hand to touch down in clinical fashion on the left wing. Ross Byrne stepped forward for a tricky conversion attempt, but he split the posts from the touchline in superb style.
This provided a strong platform for the Blues, but they suffered a setback at the end of the first quarter when Dominic Ryan was forced out of the action with an injury. His place was taken by Sean McNulty, and with 26 minutes gone on the clock, Ulster levelled matters with their opening try.
Leinster struggled to deal with a neat grubber kick through on the left flank by Best, and despite being under considerable pressure, the Ulster centre eventually dotted over the line for a hard-earned score.
Sam Windsor added the extras and with clear-cut opportunities proving hard to come by, this looked like being the final score of the half. Yet, outside centre Rory O’Loughlin had other ideas, and his superb lung-bursting run deep into Ulster territory enabled Conan – Leinster’s captain on the day – to crash over for a converted score and 14-7 lead just before the interval.
As was expected, Leinster made a number of alterations to their team for the start of the second half, with only Tom Daly, Barry Daly and Hayden Triggs returning to the field of play when the action resumed. Along with internationals like Zane Kirchner, McFadden and Josh van der Flier, Ian Nagle was also introduced for his first appearance in Leinster blue.
The Cork native was sin-binned in the early stages of the half, though, and this meant that McFadden acted as an impromptu flanker at scrum-time. Leinster coped admirably while down to 14 men before also losing replacement Andrew Porter to a yellow card beyond the hour mark.
The Leinster defence remained tight and compact as the play progressed, but after he was picked out in space on 65 minutes, promising Ulster youngster Lyttle dived over on the left for a well-worked five-pointer.
It was now the turn of Johnny McPhillips, a key figure for the Ireland Under-20s earlier on in the summer, to negotiate a tricky conversion, but like Ross Byrne in the opening period, he confidently found the target from an awkward position.
With the sides on level terms (14-all) once more, an exciting conclusion to the tie lay in store. However, it was Leinster who ultimately discovered an extra gear in the closing stages..
A well-executed attack on the left was finished off by the industrious Murphy, and although replacement out-half Joey Carbery was wide with his first effort from the kicking tee, an unconverted try from McFadden in the 79th minute placed the result beyond any doubt.
A fifth try by Ireland Sevens international Adam Byrne subsequently put the icing on the cake, and Carbery was also successful with the final conversion for Leinster who host Gloucester in their second pre-season outing at Tallaght Stadium next Saturday (kick-off 3pm).
REFEREE: Dudley Phillips (IRFU); ASSISTANT REFEREES: Nigel Correll, Helen O’Reilly (both IRFU).