So Close

Analysis: How outstanding Ulster almost shocked reigning champions Leinster

Dan McFarland’s side were brilliant but came up just short in Dublin on Saturday night.

IT’S BEEN ENCOURAGING to see Ulster’s players taking some pride from their performance against Leinster in their various social media updates since Saturday night.

In an age where winning is everything, Ulster’s willingness to acknowledge their superb effort at the Aviva Stadium has been welcome.

John Cooney dejected after the game Ulster were left devastated by a narrow defeat. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Dan McFarland’s men have major regrets, certainly, and there was devastation at coming up short but they played a starring role in one of the greatest inter-provincial games ever.

The nature of sport is that fleeting moments – a dropped ball, a missed tackle, a lineout failing, a flicker of poor discipline – can decide a game and Ulster came out on the wrong side of those fine margins in this Champions Cup quarter-final against the reigning champions.

However, having been underdogs for this contest, McFarland’s side delivered a brilliant performance that underlines that their revival this season is very real.

With strong recruitment incoming in the shape of Sam Carter, Matt Faddes, Jack McGrath and others, Ulster fans have every right to be positive for the future. 

The display against Leinster highlighted that Ulster are already a competitive, intelligent, physical and skilful force at their best.

Statement of physicality

Similarly to England’s win over Ireland in the Six Nations at this same venue, Ulster’s early physicality set the tone for their performance.

The very first Ulster tackle of the game saw Iain Henderson hammering Sean O’Brien.

Henderson Hit

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Henderson is a talismanic figure for Ulster and his fitness was key in this game.

The power in Henderson’s tackle here is symbolic of the dogged physicality Ulster brought to many of their other 250 tackles in this game.

The Henderson tackle above is one of leadership, setting a standard that his team-mates willingly matched over this first set of defence, ending in a superb turnover for captain Rory Best after Ulster refused to give up the gainline to Leinster.

Breakdown competition

Out-half Ross Byrne is the man to carry the ball for Leinster just before Best’s steal, with Nick Timoney first into the tackle.


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Byrne makes an initial impact into Timoney’s tackle, but Henderson [circled in white below] arrives in high to wrestle the Leinster playmaker.


Using his excellent upper body strength, Henderson takes control of the tackle, pulling Byrne down to the right and onto the ground on his back as Timoney ensures the Leinster out-half cannot offer more leg drive.

Henderson’s intervention means that the arriving Rhys Ruddock has nothing in front of him to hit and he ends up simply falling to ground to the right of the contest [yellow below].


As we can see above, Henderson’s wrestling has left Byrne on his back, with the ball totally exposed.

With Ruddock out of the game, Best [red] can clearly identify the opportunity and Henderson buys him additional split seconds by staying firmly wrapped around Byrne, not allowing him to move on the ground and get the ball further back on Leinster’s side.

Best’s speed to the ball [red below] beats the slightly sluggish Leinster reaction to the threat.


Jordan Larmour [blue above] has come from Leinster’s right-hand side of the tackle and has to ensure he gets past Timoney, meaning he loses the race to the ball and Best gets locked into the jackal position before the Leinster fullback can attempt to clear him out.

Scrum-half Luke McGrath [number nine above] might have hit the breakdown too, but instead attempts to recover the ball, which Best has beaten him to.

Best is able to make a clean steal and with Eric O’Sullivan, Timoney and Jordi Murphy flooding forward to support him, Ulster have a crucial early turnover.

John Cooney had another vital breakdown turnover for Ulster in the second half but even when they didn’t make steals, they did a superb job of slowing and spoiling Leinster possession at the breakdown in this game – with Marcell Coetzee prominent.

Carrying power

Directly after this Best turnover, we saw Ulster’s early statement of physicality continue as Stuart McCloskey made the northern province’s first attacking carry of the game.

McCloskey Carry

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Cian Healy is more accustomed to being the man to steamroll opposition defenders, but McCloskey sits him down here for a huge momentum builder.

He carries directly into Healy’s upper body, bracing himself and exploding forward using his arms as bullbars. 

It’s another major statement of Ulster’s intent and another form of leadership that McCloskey’s team-mates willingly followed.

Number eight Coetzee was particularly outstanding in the ball-carrying department, continually winning collisions as he made an impressive average of 2.5 metres across his 11 carries, many of them in dense traffic.

Suffocating defence

Matching up ideally with the actual physicality of some of Ulster’s tackling was their stifling linespeed, so often shutting down Leinster’s attacking options.

Coached by former Ireland centre Jared Payne, the Ulster defence delivered strongly on a plan to bring aggressive linespeed and limit Leinster’s attempts to play to wide channels through outside centre Garry Ringrose.

McCloskey and centre partner Darren Cave were superb defensively for Ulster, dealing with many of Leinster’s set-piece strikes and limiting the home team’s ability to play to width.


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We see an example above as Cave rushes up to close down Ringrose.

Cave is on the edge of Ulster’s frontline defence and leads the linespeed, just edging up ahead of the defenders inside him [white below].


There’s a brief hesitation from Cave as he identifies that Adam Byrne [blue below] is an option for Ross Byrne to pass to.


But Cave reads the play well to instantly accelerate as the ball leaves Byrne’s hands out the back door towards Ringrose.


We can also see Jacob Stockdale on the bottom right of the image above, reacting to Cave’s linespeed and beginning to close up from the backfield.

Ideally, Cave would have hammered Ringrose ball-and-all here but completing this kind of tackle is difficult given the speed Cave is moving at, as well as the excellent footwork Ringrose possesses.

This goes down as a ‘missed tackle’ on the official stats sheet but it’s an excellent piece of defending as Cave sends Ringrose back inside, where his team-mates have been hunting across the pitch.


Murphy and Marty Moore are only too happy to deal with Ringrose, the tighthead prop making a big impact onto the Leinster centre’s upper body as Murphy goes low and takes out his legs.

The net result is a gain of around five metres for the Ulster defence and just a few phases later, as Leinster struggle to make the gainline, Adam Byrne knocks-on to send Ulster into half-time with a 13-11 lead.

Ulster’s suffocating defensive effort also led to their opening try through Kieran Treadwell, as linespeed on the right-hand side of a ruck sent Ringrose scampering back infield and across to Ulster’s left side of the preceding ruck.

Pressure from Henderson and Best saw Ringrose’s attempted exiting kick leave his foot on a flat trajectory, with Best pulling off the blockdown and Treadwell reacting superbly to score.

Kick pressure

Ulster also brought skill in their kicking game, which added to the pressure they imposed on Leinster in this game.

Scrum-half Cooney kicked the ball 13 times in play against Leinster and many of those kicks were highly contestable.

Stock Win

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This first-half example is a brilliant box kick from Cooney from the back of an Ulster maul – signifying that this was a tactic to pressure Leinster rather than just a back-up plan when there was no space for attacking with ball in hand.

The ball hangs in the air for five full seconds and comes down around 20 metres upfield, ideal criteria to allow Stockdale to compete.

Stockdale’s aerial battle with Adam Byrne was one enthralling part of this brilliant game and they both had strong moments in this regard. In this instance, both players get off the ground, bid to catch the ball and come to ground with their arms around it.


Stockdale fights hard to rip it free of Byrne as Larmour tackles him from behind.

Stockdale is helped in his task by replacement hooker Rob Herring, who drives in on Byrne [white below] and clears him away as Stockdale whips his body around to present the ball.


It’s a vital aerial win for Ulster by Stockdale and Ulster go on to score three points at the end of the attacking passage that ensues, Leinster infringing to allow Cooney to kick a penalty.

While Cooney was Ulster’s busiest kicker, out-half Billy Burns was not far behind him with 10 kicks in open play.

Several of them were hanging diagonal garryowens that landed just outside Leinster’s 22, preventing them from calling marks and allowing the excellent Ulster kick chase to apply even more pressure.

Influential halfbacks

In Cooney and Burns, Ulster have a pair of halfbacks who can pressure opposition teams with their kicking games but are more than comfortable attacking with ball in hand too.

In the example below, we see Ulster playing off out-half Burns before Cooney snipes from the next ruck.


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Ulster play off 10 a huge amount and certainly did so far more often the Leinster in this game.

62% of Leinster’s carries in this game were either off 9 or pick-and-jams, whereas that figure was at 44% for Ulster, who so often preferred playing around the creative passing hub that is Burns.

The out-half feeds Treadwell for a carry in this instance before Cooney spots his opportunity. He is aided in that by a proactive clearout by Coetzee [white below].


As we can see above, Coetzee has driven Rory O’Loughlin to ground a couple of metres beyond the tackle.

By going deep, Coetzee ensures that Healy would have to retreat downfield to fold over to the other side of the ruck [as indicated in red above].

Tadhg Furlong is expecting Healy to fold and he shuffles to his right [indicated in blue] as he anticipates support arriving on his inside. 

Cooney doesn’t need to be asked twice, scooping the ball and arcing to his left, fending Healy as the loosehead prop attempts to shut him down.

Healy does recover to dive and tackle Cooney after he bursts past Furlong, but the Ulster scrum-half is over the gainline and then offloads to the supporting Cave, who thunders into the Leinster 22.

With the pressure on once again, O’Brien concedes a breakdown penalty and Cooney kicks three points for Ulster.

Attacking touches

Ulster made a big call to go to the corner with a 63rd-minute penalty after Byrne’s try had left them trailing 18-13, turning down a kickable shot at goal and backing their ability to cross the tryline.


The decision was vindicated when Luke Marshall – making a big impact after 10 months out with injury – dotted down on phase 11 of the ensuing attacking passage from the close-range lineout.

Over the course of a passage that lasts 1 minute and 12 seconds, there is gritty carrying from Ulster, with Murphy [3 carries], O’Sullivan [3], Henderson, Herring, Wiehahn Herbst and McCloskey all putting their hands up. 

The two key phases saw Ulster bringing a little more ambition, however, shifting the ball beyond one-out carries.

On phase eight, Burns finds Marshall out the back door of the decoy-running Treadwell, with the centre skipping a [slightly forward-looking] pass wide left to Stockdale.

And the scoring phase itself is a thing of beauty.


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McCloskey’s wonderful pass is the key here as he steps up and takes on responsibility in a pressurised area of the pitch.

Below, we can see McCloskey [white] organising, calling on Sean Reidy [red] to run a hard line outside him.


Burns [blue above] is inside McCloskey at this moment but then begins to drift in behind McCloskey, who is the first receiver.

As the ball arrives in McCloskey’s hands, Leinster’s defence appears to be in decent shape.


Scott Fardy is in position to deal with McCloskey [white above], while Jack Conan could take Reidy coming on the hard line outside [red] and then Ross Byrne would able to deal with Burns out the back of Ready [blue].

But it’s far easier to point these things out with the benefit of freeze frames, rather than in the face of Ulster’s rapidly-moving attack.

Conan’s eyes are turned in as he worries about the big threat of McCloskey carrying the ball, or potentially even dropping off a short pass to Burns slipping up on his outside shoulder.

Byrne, meanwhile, is concerned about the dangerous run Reidy is making, the Ulster openside timing his decoy line ideally to be a threat.


We end up with the situation above. Conan and Fardy [white] are both committed to McCloskey, while Byrne has bitten down on Reidy’s run [red].

That leaves Burns [blue] arcing out the back to take McCloskey’s superbly-timed pass.

It’s fantastic playmaking from the imposing Ulster centre.

As he receives the ball, he darts to his right [white below], looking to lure Conan in.


McCloskey also commits Conan with his eyes, never once looking at Burns out the back until he has released the ball.


Instead, McCloskey is looking at the defensive line where Conan is positioned, luring him further into biting inwards on him.

With Reidy timing his line superbly to be a viable receiver of the short pass, Byrne also bites in, while Burns times his run out the back ideally, staying relatively hidden before bouncing out when McCloskey passes.

With Burns now in space, Dave Kearney [yellow below] has to commit inwards onto the Ulster out-half.


Burns moves the ball on to Marshall, who has fullback Michael Lowry outside him.

Leinster’s Jamison Gibson-Park opts not to turn in on Marshall, sitting off towards Lowry [white below] and hoping that the defenders inside him can cover across.


Larmour [blue] is closing across from a sweeping position behind the frontline defence, while Byrne [red] is attempting to recover after initially biting in.

Marshall decides to back his finishing power rather than passing to Lowry for a probable finish wider out, and the replacement centre makes sure it’s the right decision by stepping back inside Larmour and finding the power to score through Byrne’s tackle.

It’s a wonderful try for Ulster to bring the game to 18-18 but Cooney misses the conversion and the chance to nudge his team ahead as the game enters the closing 15 minutes.

It’s an uncharacteristic miss from the scrum-half and although it’s impossible to say what would have happened next, it’s one of the regrets for Ulster.

The same applies to Stockdale’s much-discussed failure to finish another brilliant passage of attacking play in the 45th minute and there’s no doubt elements of this narrow defeat will gnaw away at McFarland and his team.

However, the countless positives in a superb team performance are worth accentuating as Ulster move forward and look to secure a Pro14 play-off place over the closing three rounds of the regular season.

There were difficult lessons for Ulster on Saturday night in a stunning game of rugby but there was also a lesson for everyone else that McFarland’s men can be real contenders.

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