Ulster 21 Leinster 19

This match was always going to be about experiencing the new look Ravenhill and the Old Lady of Ulster Rugby has certainly come the through the latest series of major surgery in some style.

As I emerged from the new Onslow turnstiles the immediate feeling was one of disorientation with the back of the new Memorial Stand looking extremely imposing compared to the previous homely and ramshackle appearance of the beer tent. More than imposing really, as the huge edifice, adorned with three enormous Ulster Rugby logos, frankly looks intimidating, particularly, I imagine, to visiting teams and supporters!

The two new bars and the Kukri shop were rammed so I didn’t get much of a chance to check them out pre game but the shear volume of punters proved they are a welcome addition, though there is a distinct need for more drink outlets throughout the ground and I believe these are planned for the season proper.

The rest of the ground lived up to expectations, with the obvious exception of the Prom, and when the venue is packed with supporters, rather than sightseers you can imagine it being very intimidating indeed with supporters on two sides rammed right up to the pitch.  We took our place on the east Terrace, mid 22 at the Aquinas end, and due to our late arrival we were right at the front standing a few feet below the playing surface but with a fantastic view. In fact, having done photography at a few matches at Ravers, the viewing position is very similar eye to that of a photographer sitting on a stool, and you are so close to the pitch that you really do feel part of the action.

Not everything was perfect, and on a first outing you would expect some teething problems. The constant dripping of the run-off from the back of the Memorial Stand onto the punters below suggests that the guttering of the new stand needs looked at and the seats in the same stand were described as very cramped – indeed suggestions that it should be renamed the Ryanair Stand gives a fair indication of how uncomfortable and cramped they were!

Even though the Old Lady has had a cosmetic face lift the old problems of the circulatory system still remain with crowd control a major issue. At times there appeared to be more Eventsec personnel than punters and, god love them, the ridiculous rules and regulations they are forced to impose to justify their numbers needs looking at. To add to the problem the tannoy system was completely indecipherable so you had no idea where you were meant to go, but, annoyingly, the most obvious and straight forward routes appeared out of bounds!

Plus ça change …

While the new facilities largely delighted the game itself was a big disappointment with Ulster failing to fire on many fronts against a decidedly understrength Leinster side. Leinster came to play and for large periods of the first half they looked sharper than their hosts and, to my continued chagrin, bullied Ulster out of the game.

The visitors raced to a 13  – 0 lead thanks to a brace of penalties from Jimmy Gopperth and a converted Dominic Ryan try. Ulster’s play was typified by 19 stone Nick Williams  flipping a hospital pass to 10 stone Heaney, six yards out from the Ulster line, with Heaney immediately engulfed and carried back by the onrushing Leinster defence. It was a stupid play which unfortunately set the standard for the night. While individual performances were acceptable the general cohesion and decision making from Ulster were poor.

Ulster had enough class in the ranks for the individual efforts to pay off and they hit back with a well taken try from Jarred Payne who cut inside to force his way over the line, when it appeared easier to let the ball go wide, and just before the break a good turnover from Sean Doyle led to a five meter scrum which saw Williams barging over with a trail of Leinster defenders in his wake. McKinney, who had a good night with the boot from hand and tee, slotted over the conversion to give Ulster a 14 – 13 lead at half time.

McKinney, Farrell and Doyle, I believe, were the only players to return as Ulster introduced 12 changes at the break and despite Ulster rolling out the likes of Wilson, Marshall, Tuohy and Diack the young Leinster side continued to dominate. One particularly impressive piece of defence from Leinster led to their second successful penalty of the half to give the visitors a 19 – 14 lead but, with Gopperth trotting off shortly after, the Boys in Blue lost much of their shape for the final 20 minutes.

On the plus side, Ulster’s Ricky Andrew and David McIlwaine combined well, looking threatening and athletic throughout their second half appearance, and as the clock counted down towards the final whistle a late flourish from Ulster saw the returning Ian Porter snipe over for a deserved try. McKinney added the extras and Ulster escaped by the skin of their teeth!

Final Score: Ulster 21 Leinster 19.

ULSTER: Peter Nelson, Rory Scholes, Jarred Payne, Chris Farrell, Michael Allen, James McKinney, Michael Heaney, Kyle McCall, Niall Annett, Decaln Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson, Neil McComb, Mike McComish, Sean Doyle, Nick Williams. Replacements: Callum Black, Jonny Murphy, Bronson Ross, Alan O’Connor, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Roger Wilson, Ian Porter, Chris Cochrane, Luke Marshall, David McIlwaine, Ricky Andrew.

LEINSTER: Darren Hudson, Darragh Fanning, Brendan Macken, Noel Reid, Andrew Boyle, Jimmy Gopperth, John Cooney, Jack O’Connell, Aaron Dundon, Martin Moore, Tadhg Beirne, Quinn Roux, Rhys Ruddock (Captain), Dominic Ryan, Leo Auva’a. Replacements: James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Michael Bent, Tadhg Furlong, Ben Marshall, Jordi Murphy, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath, Colm O’Shea, Adam Byrne, Thomas Daly, Billy Dardis, Thomas Farrell, Cathal Marsh.

I’d said in my preview that I was expecting big games from Nelson, Farrell, and Annett and I was hoping for a big game from the promising Kyle McCall and individually they played OK. Annett and McCall perhaps had two of the better games but I was a little disappointed by Nelson and Farrell. Perhaps I was expecting too much with both have little competitive rugby in the last year so we’ll reserve judgement for a few more games yet!

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