Leinster edge Ulster in thriller to keep Champions Cup defence on track
Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium
AN UTTERLY ABSORBING and compelling affair from start to finish, and a contest befitting of the occasion. But when push came to shove, and the tension heightened, Leinster were able to delve into their reservoir of big-game experience and champion mettle to emerge on the right side of an epic inter-pro.
Leo Cullen’s side were pushed every inch of the way by a highly-charged, highly-spirited Ulster performance during this rollicking quarter-final tie, but champion sides — even when they’re not at their best — find a way to win and the holders did just that in front of a febrile crowd of 51,700.
Ross Byrne celebrates his winning kick. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Ross Byrne’s 71st-minute penalty from the far touchline ultimately decided the contest and sent Leinster through to a third consecutive Champions Cup semi-final, where they will meet either Racing 92 or Toulouse as their title defence gathers momentum.
But there were so many pivotal moments throughout this tie that Ulster will reflect on with frustration and regret, no more so than Jacob Stockdale’s botched try when he failed to ground after doing all the hard work.
Leading 13-11 six minutes into the second period, it would have given Ulster a considerable scoreboard buffer, but instead, the momentum shifted and Leinster stay alive in the competition. Just.
The provincial rivals exchanged meaty blows from start to finish, the game ebbing and flowing in eye-catching fashion, and certainly it took its toll with Rory Best and Dan Leavy both suffering injuries, while Byrne kicked the winning points one-legged as he struggled with cramp. A demolition derby in every sense of the word.
You had to feel for Ulster at the end of the game as they came so agonisingly close to a statement win in their first European knockout outing in five years, Dan McFarland’s side producing a monumental shift to push the hosts all the way, but not many teams come to Dublin and leave with the spoils.
Leinster have now won 12 games on the bounce at the national stadium and once again displayed their ability to dig deep with their backs against the wall, while their unrivalled depth chart once again shone through as the likes of Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin and Adam Byrne all stood up on the big stage.
Out-half Byrne scored 16 points, including a first-half try, while Adam Byrne’s second-half score shortly after Stockdale’s blunder at the other end was absolutely crucial. Jack Conan played a key part in that and was outstanding throughout, claiming the man-of-the-match award for a tireless shift. James Ryan made 23 carries and 21 tackles. Standard.
For Ulster, they brought an aggressive linespeed and it caused Leinster problems, with Marty Moore getting through trojan work, Marcell Coetzee hammering into collisions and Jordi Murphy intent on spoiling the party for his former club.
It was just the fifth all-Irish derby in the 24-year history of the Champions Cup, and boy did it live up to the billing.
The opening exchanges were feverish and frenetic, everything you would expect of an inter-provincial derby of this magnitude. And Ulster did not travel south to make up the numbers, the red shirts — Stockdale, Best, John Cooney, Iain Henderson and Stuart McCloskey — all landing early, and meaningful, blows.
Cian Healy clamped himself over man and ball to stem the initial onslaught, but after Cronin knocked on in the tidy-up work, the red wave went down the shortside off the set-piece, where the prolific Stockdale was ready and waiting.
Leinster scrambled, Stockdale burst through Adam Byrne’s tackle, and it took four blue shirts to scrag the big man into touch. Danger averted. For now. The early collisions were of shuddering proportion, and Ulster were winning many of them. They had showed up alright.
Treadwell celebrates his try. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
And the white and red flags were billowing with greater intensity on five minutes. Their defensive press gave Garry Ringrose no avenue of escape and when the Ireland centre doubled back on himself, ran sideways and attempted to kick clear, Best and Henderson were all over him.
Rhys Ruddock was unable to change direction quickly enough, allowing Kieran Treadwell to get onto the ball ahead of everyone and touch down for his first European try, which Cooney successfully converted with his first kick off the tee at the national stadium.
But Leinster’s champion response was as emphatic as it was immediate. Stockdale brilliantly gathered Byrne’s restart but was forced into touch by Scott Fardy, providing the platform for the home side to lay siege and strike.
O’Loughlin’s half-break in midfield put Leinster on the front foot and after 25 phases of close-quarter rugby, with the tight five making hard-earned metres, Byrne took it upon himself to show-and-go and carry over the whitewash through Robert Baloucoune.
The out-half, making his first start in a European knockout game in the absence of the injured Johnny Sexton, was off target with his touchline conversion and then snatched at a far more straightforward penalty attempt minutes later after Darren Cave was offside.
In between it all, Ulster were dealt a hefty blow when their totemic skipper succumbed to a right ankle injury, Best clearly distraught as his game was ended after just 16 minutes. Enter Rob Herring, and the northern province were not backing down.
They hunted every Leinster carrier with savage intensity — see Cave smashing Ringrose as exhibit A — and after Cronin’s lineout throw evaded everyone deep inside Ulster territory, Cooney extended their scoreboard advantage when Healy was pinged by Romain Poite.
And so it ebbed and flowed, not an inch given. Leinster’s attacking maul wasn’t earning any yards, so O’Loughlin tried his luck in field, forcing Coetzee to cough up the penalty, which Byrne duly slotted over to bring it back to a two-point game.
John Cooney is tackled by Healy and Furlong. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
O’Loughlin was again involved in the next passage as he did brilliantly to isolate and latch onto McCloskey on the Ulster 10-metre line, and despite a big hand-off from his opposite number, managed to rip the ball and win the scrum.
With penalty advantage, the trademark Byrne kick-pass picked Dave Kearney out on the left and very nearly opened the door for the Leinster winger, but he was hauled down just short. Back we came, Byrne kicking the hosts into the lead for the first time on 36 minutes.
You wouldn’t dare take your eyes off it.
After working tirelessly to get their noses in front, Ulster will have been disappointed to cough it up so cheaply through a succession of penalty infringements, but they conjured a riposte before the break.
Showing patience and precision during a probing passage, Ulster tried to vary the angle of attack with a kick wide for Baloucoune, but when that door was shut, Cooney accepted the invitation to send McFarland’s side into the sheds 13-11 ahead after a breathtaking 40 minutes of rugby.
Normal service resumed on the restart. It was, however, a pity O’Loughlin, who had been excellent in the first period, was forced off at the break to be replaced by Noel Reid, while lightning very nearly struck twice for Ringrose as Herring charged down his attempted clearance kick.
Leinster were fortunate to escape on that occasion, and they were given the ultimate reprieve moments later. Stockdale’s show and turn of pace was frightening as he ruthlessly exposed Leinster’s narrow defensive line to burst through two tackles.
But after doing all the hard work, Stockdale carelessly — and criminally — tried to ground the ball one-handed and, under pressure from Kearney, knocked it on before getting it down. All he had to do was dive for the whitewash.
From the resulting scrum, the Leinster pack turned the screw for a huge momentum shift.
And the knockout blow duly followed. Cronin initially thundered down the outside channel but after failing to find the supporting Byrne on his right shoulder, Conan showed him how it was done in the next passage.
Byrne dots down for Leinster’s second try. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
The Leinster number eight picked at the base of the ruck, burst through the gap and charged his way into the Ulster 22 with ball in one hand, while the other tried to pull his falling shorts up. After barreling through the red wall, Conan showed patience to draw the last defender and vision to offload to Byrne, who did the rest in the far corner. 18-13.
With his side in front and in the ascendancy, Cullen unloaded his bench on the hour mark but Leinster lost Leavy almost instantly after he came on, the flanker suffering a serious leg injury before being carted off.
It is a horribly cruel setback for Leavy, who is only just back after three months on the sideline with a calf problem, and with Josh van der Flier already ruled out for the rest of the season, Leinster’s openside resources are suddenly thin on the ground.
With Mick Kearney on for his 50th appearance in blue, Fardy was re-deployed in the back row, and Leinster found themselves under their own posts on the restart. There was more than a suspicion of a forward pass in the build-up, but Marshall’s try was allowed stand.
It appeared for all the world that Marshall’s initial skip pass out left to Stockdale would be called back, but Poite played on, and a number of phases later, McCloskey sucked in two defenders to create the space for the returning centre to get over.
After 10 months out, it was a sweet moment for Marshall, but Cooney spurned the chance to put Ulster in front as he pulled the conversion attempt, leaving it on an absolute knife edge at 18-18 heading towards the final 10 minutes.
The physicality was beginning to take its toll on both sides, and Leinster were forced into bringing McGrath back on for Jamison Gibson-Park at nine and Ross Byrne was clearly pulling up every time he kicked the ball. Not that it mattered obviously.
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Leinster won the lineout on the far side, the rolling maul was set in motion and when Ulster were pinged, Byrne stretched out his right leg and called for the tee. The strike was perfect, the flags went up and the champions were back in front. No bother.
Now it was about seeing it out, and after getting through 40 tireless phases of pure guts and determination, McGrath kicked dead and Leinster march on.
Tries: Ross Byrne, Adam Byrne.
Conversions: Ross Byrne [1 from 2]
Penalties: Ross Byrne [3 from 4].
Tries: Kieran Treadwell, Luke Marshall.
Conversions: John Cooney [1 from 2].
Penalties: John Cooney [2 from 2].
LEINSTER: 15. Jordan Larmour, 14. Adam Byrne, 13. Garry Ringrose, 12. Rory O’Loughlin (Noel Reid 41′), 11. Dave Kearney, 10. Ross Byrne (Rob Kearney 73′), 9. Luke McGrath (Jamison Gibson-Park 58′)(McGrath 66′); 1. Cian Healy (Ed Byrne 58′), 2. Sean Cronin (James Tracy 58′), 3. Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter 67′), 4. Scott Fardy, 5. James Ryan, 6. Rhys Ruddock (captain), 7. Sean O’Brien (Dan Leavy 51′)(Mick Kearney 63′), 8. Jack Conan.
ULSTER: 15. Mike Lowry, 14. Robert Baloucoune, 13. Darren Cave (Luke Marshall 63′), 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Jacob Stockdale, 10. Billy Burns, 9. John Cooney; 1. Eric O’Sullivan (Eric O’Sullivan 72′), 2. Rory Best (captain)(Rob Herring 16′), 3. Marty Moore (Wiehahn Herbst 56′), 4. Iain Henderson, 5. Kieran Treadwell, 6. Nick Timoney, 7. Jordi Murphy, 8. Marcell Coetzee (Sean Reidy 52′).
Replacements not used: 19. Alan O’Connor, 21. Dave Shanahan, 23. Angus Kernohan.
Referee: Romain Poite [France].
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