In a match where Ulster were hoping to celebrate Rory Best’s 200th appearance, a battered and bruised team limped to a poor defeat against Leinster in the Guinness PRO14.
Leinster didn’t have to get out of second gear as Ulster went over an hour without adding to the score board. Sean Reidy got Ulster’s try while Jordan Larmour and two Luke McGrath tries allowed Leinster to leave Belfast with four points.
There were early positives for Ulster when Luke Marshall ran a nice line to pierce the Leinster defence. Marshall kicked through but Tommy Bowe couldn’t gather. Once Leinster had weathered the Ulster ‘storm’, their hosts had no answer to the power and ruthlessness of the three-times European champions and struggled to create clear cut chances all night.
Jordan Larmour answered a Christian Lealiifano penalty with a try inside 16 minutes. It was a poor score to concede as Larmour found space and ghosted past three Ulster defenders showing a great turn of speed to reach the line. Ulster scored their last points of the evening through Sean Reidy 13 minutes later. A dominant scrum five metres out allowed Sean Reidy to drive low from the base of the scrum and crash over.
Ulster could have easily scored a second try but squandered a five-on-two overlap inside the Leinster 22 with nine minutes left on the clock in the first half. It’s easy to say what could have happened however a try would have lifted Ulster and the crowd with half time beckoning. Far too often do Ulster fail to protect the ball properly allowing the opposition a chance to clear their lines. Instead, the move broke down and Ross Byrne knocked over his second penalty to give Leinster a 13-10 lead at the break.
Play resumed and it was the same story of Ulster struggling to hold onto the ball. Dave Kearney was sent to the bin 15 minutes into the second half but Ulster didn’t make good use of the man advantage. Luke McGrath crossed for his first try four minutes later as Ulster lost the period 5-0. The try was superbly worked by Sean O’Brien who fixed the last defender and allow McGrath a clear run to the line.
Ulster were wobbling but losing the sin bin period was the sucker-punch that finally knocked out Ulster. The Leinster 22m line was breached just once in the ten minutes and the entry was immediately succeeded by a knock on. Luke McGrath added some gloss to the score line in the last minute after intense pressure on the Ulster line.
Ulster’s lineout did not function at all. Only 62% of their own ball was won, preventing Ulster from building on good field position – when they had it. Playing with the wind in the first half, Ulster only had 46% of the territory while Leinster had 54% in the second half. Chances are at a premium against top sides such as Leinster so Ulster need to be more savvy with ball in hand or else they will fall to more defeats.
It was a very professional performance from Leinster, particularly in the second half. Leinster’s kicking game was very good and it pinned Ulster in their own half At 18-10, Leinster were happy to defend without committing many bodies to the ruck and Ulster were met with a blue wall every phase but didn’t have the creative nous to break Leinster down.
It was a baptism of fire for Aaron Cairns but he stepped up to the plate and attempted to deliver quick ball to Christian Lealiifano. Alan O’Connor, Sean Reidy and Iain Henderson were dogged in defence making 14, 17 and 23 tackles respectively. O’Connor has made 44 tackles this season without missing one.
Ulster travel to Port Elizabeth next week to face Southern Kings who are the only side in the PRO14, Top14 and Aviva Premiership to have not picked up any points.
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Christian Lealiifano, Aaron Cairns; Callum Black, Rory Best, Rodney Ah You, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy, Chris Henry, Jean Deysel. Replacements: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Ross Kane, Kieran Treadwell, Robbie Diack, Jonny Stewart, Pete Nelson, Louis Ludik.