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Dublin: 1°C Sunday 7 March 2021

Leinster notch 23rd consecutive win as Ulster disappoint before semi-final

Leo Cullen made 15 changes to his starting XV but they still had too much for the northern province.

Leinster 28

Ulster 10

IT WASN’T THEIR prettiest victory ever but the ultra-efficient Leinster notched their 23rd consecutive win in all competitions even after making 15 changes to their starting XV against an Ulster team that was very close to full-strength.

Leo Cullen’s men started superbly as they rolled on towards next weekend’s Guinness Pro14 semi-finals having won all 15 of their regular-season games, while Ulster will have a few worries ahead of their own knock-out clash away to Edinburgh.

louis-ludik-and-rob-lyttle-dejected-as-scott-penny-celebrates-his-try-with-cian-kelleher Leinster celebrate Scott Penny's try. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A week on from being beaten by Connacht, the northern province were second best at the Aviva Stadium again, with sloppy errors repeatedly stymying their momentum. Head coach Dan McFarland will be concerned before the semi-final.

Leinster, meanwhile, were able to rest all of their front-liners and still continue a winning streak that extends all the way back to the 2017/18 season. It’s remarkable that some of the impressive performers in this game won’t even feature in their semi-final next week.

Man of the match Ciarán Frawley was very good at inside centre, showing playmaking class and grit in defence, while openside flanker Will Connors showed more of the defensive appetite and impact that he has become synonymous with.

The bulked-up loosehead prop Ed Byrne had an excellent game as he captained Leinster for the first time, while there were more positives pre-match as Cullen included Dan Leavy and James Ryan in the team’s warm-up. An already seriously deep squad will only get deeper with those totemic figures back in the mix.

As for Ulster, one of the few reasons to be positive was the sharp performance of Jacob Stockdale at fullback. He kicked strongly with his left foot and McFarland’s men only ever really threatened when Stockdale, Stuart McCloskey or Marcell Coetzee were on the ball. 

On the whole, Ulster still appear to be waking up after lockdown and possible injury issues for Jordi Murphy, McCloskey, and Stockdale could be damaging ahead of next week.

Meanwhile, the Leinster machine rolls on. They will take some beating.

ed-byrne-scores-a-try Captain Ed Byrne on his way to scoring Leinster's early try. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Leinster made the perfect start on a calm evening in Dublin, with wing Hugo Keenan batting back Ross Byrne’s hanging kick-off to grab the first possession before Ulster captain Sam Carter failed to roll away and Byrne kicked the penalty down the left touchline.

The maul made little headway but – exactly like Robbie Henshaw last weekend against Munster – Frawley nudged a dangerous grubber in behind the defence, where Matt Faddes couldn’t gather it in contest with Rory O’Loughlin on the ground, Frawley regaining the loose ball a few metres out from the Ulster tryline. Leinster shifted into their pick-and-jam game, with captain Ed Byrne crossing to score as Deegan latched on. Byrne’s conversion had Leinster 7-0 up after just five minutes.

With Ulster very sloppy in possession, that soon turned into a 10-0 lead when lock Kieran Treadwell was penalized for slapping down Jamison Gibson-Park’s pass off a lineout and Byrne slotted the three points.

Ulster finally found some attacking momentum in response as they got key men Stockdale, Coetzee and McCloskey onto the ball but a Deegan turnover penalty ended their first visit into Leinster’s 22. 

Leinster added another three points just before the quarter mark as a clever dummy box-kick set up on the right saw Gibson-Park flash the ball to Byrne, who kicked wide to the left instead, wing Cian Kelleher regathering the ball on the bounce before Carter again failed to roll away from a tackle. 13-0 Leinster.

a-view-of-a-scrum The scene at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ulster could have reduced the deficit five minutes later when Deegan didn’t roll away quick enough close to the Leinster tryline but McFarland’s men rejected the easy penalty shot at goal and went to the left corner, where Leinster lock Ross Molony picked off their lineout.

With Leinster’s defence turning up the heat, led by Will Connors as ever, Ulster’s sloppiness continued as Cooney had a knock-on from a lineout attack and then simply box-kicked out on the full aimlessly coming towards half-time. 

Ulster did get one more attacking chance in the Leinster half before the break but Murphy destroyed their maul effort for a turnover that Cullen’s pack then turned into a penalty at the scrum.

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Ulster needed to start the second half strongly but Matty Rea lost the ball forward on their first attack and Leinster earned a choke tackle turnover after an energetic kick chase upfield. Again, Leinster’s scrum converted the turnover into a penalty and Byrne nailed the 38-metre penalty from straight in front of the posts for 16-0.

Coetzee’s sneaking carry and offload to Cooney from a midfield ruck appeared gave Ulster an opportunity but their inaccuracy continued as Cooney found Rob Lyttle and the wing kicked out on the full as he looked to dink the ball in behind Leinster. 

ross-byrne-kicks-a-penalty Ross Byrne was accurate off the tee. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But finally, in the 54th minute, Ulster fired a real shot. It was a cohesive, dynamic maul effort from five metres out after they’d kicked a penalty into the left corner, Carter claiming Rob Herring’s throw and the hooker himself finishing at the tail.

Cooney converted to bring Ulster back into the game at 16-7 and suddenly they had some badly-needed momentum, but a Jordi Murphy knock-on in the Leinster 22 soon was a frustration.

With Leinster now making the sloppier errors and letting their discipline slip, Ulster kept the pressure on and Cooney popped over three points after Leinster came offside in their 22, leaving the scoreline at 16-10 with 11 minutes remaining.

But the reigning champions showed their class to close out the game as a couple of promising young guns combined for the match-sealing score. 

Harry Byrne, on for his brother at out-half, smashed a beautiful cross-field kick right and deep into Ulster’s exposed backfield, with openside flanker Scott Penny showing pace to get to the ball first, gathering on the bounce and dotting down.

 Cooney thought he had an intercept score soon after but it was ruled out for the scrum-half being offside before he picked off Rowan Osborne’s pass, and Leinster finished their convincing win with a try for Byrne from close-range, which he converted himself.

Leinster scorers:

Tries: Ed Byrne, Scott Penny, Harry Byrne

Conversions: Ross Byrne [1 from 1], Ciaran Frawley [0 from 1], Harry Byrne [1 from 1]

Penalties: Ross Byrne [3 from 3]

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Rob Herring

Conversions: John Cooney [1 from 1]

Penalties: John Cooney [1 from 1]

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Hugo Keenan, Rory O’Loughlin, Ciarán Frawley (Jimmy O’Brien ’74), Cian Kelleher; Ross Byrne (Harry Byrne ’64), Jamison Gibson-Park (Rowan Osborne ’71); Ed Byrne (captain) (Michael Milne ’63), Seán Cronin (James Tracy ’52), Michael Bent (Tom Clarkson ’58); Devin Toner, Ross Molony; Josh Murphy (Rhys Ruddock ’55), Will Connors (Scott Penny ’71), Max Deegan.

ULSTER: Jacob Stockdale (Louis Ludik ’55); Matt Faddes, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey (David Shanahan ’74), Rob Lyttle;  Ian Madigan (Bill Johnston ’63), John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan (Kyle McCall ’74), Rob Herring (John Andrew ’63), Tom O’Toole (Marty Moore ’55); Sam Carter (captain), Kieran Treadwell (David O’Connor ’55); Matthew Rea, Jordi Murphy (Nick Timoney ’63), Marcell Coetzee. 

Referee: George Clancy. 

- This article was updated at 9.28pm to remove John Cooney’s name from the Ulster try-scorers section.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from the Aviva Stadium

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