RaboDirect Pro12: Three talking points as Leinster beat Ulster
RaboDirect Pro12: Three talking points as Leinster edge past Ulster at RDS
Leinster set up end-of-an-era homecoming
Always favourites to reach the RaboDirect Pro12 final again, reigning champions Leinster duly delivered again at the RDS in their 250th match in the competition despite trailing for 65 minutes against oldest rivals Ulster in their semi-final. As with the first semi-final between Glasgow and Munster, the hits were brutal as defensive systems came out on top, a kicking battle between Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar vs Jimmy Gopperth looking likely, which had gone the way of the Ulstermen as they built a 6-0 lead at the break. Leinster’s almost all-Ireland backline—featuring the Kearney brothers, Fergus McFadden, the world’s best centre partnership in O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy, scrum-half Eoin Reddan and former Junior All Black Gopperth—produced the occasional break through the Ulster defence, only to be unceremoniously stopped, but they eventually prevailed as Gopperth landed two penalties to make it a one-score game before Leinster snatched a win in front of a record semi-final crowd. For the blue Irish province, it provides the perfect opportunity to give Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen the perfect send-off as they call time on trophy-laden careers. The former may not have lasted more than 50 minutes after his head collided with Iain Henderson’s hip, his departure merely a precaution and he should be good to make his final appearance in two weeks in a match that should live long in the memory as the end of the Drico era while their opponents Glasgow Warriors will be looking to spoil the party and become the first Scottish club to win the league. For that opportunity, O’Driscoll owes a lot to his replacement Ian Madigan—usually an outside-half—who produced an O’Driscollesque break to force two missed tackles from a determined Ulster defence for the game’s only, and decisive, try.
Absences tell for Ulster
Mark Anscombe may have had influential hooker Rory Best and scrum-half Ruan Pienaar back after weeks out with injuries, but they were still short where it counted. The loss of loosehead prop Tom Court, still suspended after a red card for a dangerous tackle, and tighthead prop John Afoa significantly weakened the Ulster scrum with flanker Stephen Ferris also out. Pienaar produced a mixed bag: missing an early long-range penalty after just four minutes and drifting out of the game at times, but he almost stole through for a try with a trademark chargedown near the Leinster 22—the bounce wasn’t on his side. Not this time. The Ulster head coach said before the game that he wouldn’t have selected Best and Pienaar if they weren’t fully ready for such a physical encounter, but they were both certainly rusty and against a side like Leinster oozing class across the field for 80 minutes, it was always going to be a calculated risk. It almost paid off. Needless penalties gave Leinster the impetus they needed after the break to enjoy some territory and Gopperth the chance to add some scoreboard pressure into the mix. It is telling that Anscombe didn’t empty the bench as Leinster were forced to do through injuries during the match. Those extra three bodies may have made a difference as Ulster dropped off tackles they should have made as ruthless Leinster ramped up the pressure in the Ulster half. There are a lot of good youngsters coming through Ulster’s ranks who now have to step up as the club say goodbye to captain Johann Muller, who is retiring to his farm in South Africa, and Afoa, Court and Sean Doyle among a number of players moving on, but it would be a surprise if they weren’t back in top four contention next season.