Sexton leads charge as Leinster show knock-out class against Ulster

Leo Cullen’s men now await the winner of Connacht v Glasgow in the Pro12 final.

Leinster 30

Ulster 18

Murray Kinsella reports from the RDS

LEINSTER DELIVERED THEIR best performance of the season so far to see off Ulster on a 30-18 scoreline and book their place in next weekend’s Guinness Pro12 final.

Isa Nacewa and Andrew Trimble Isa Nacewa's men claimed victory in the RDS. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Johnny Sexton was, unsurprisingly, at the heart of much of Leinster’s finest work in this semi-final at the RDS, showcasing his finely-tuned understanding of game management to control the fixture at crucial times.

Ulster fought hard throughout, but Leinster always looked to have an edge. They hit slightly harder, carried just a litte more aggressively, found pockets of space with their kicks, scrummaged more cohesively and won more of the aerial contests. Crucially, they were more clinical.

Around Sexton, the Leinster players looked intently focused, like they haven’t at times this season. Their ruck work was a prime example as they ploughed into Ulster bodies post-tackle, relishing the chance to gain revenge for the recent 30-6 humbling in Belfast.

Ben Te’o was superb in midfield – he will be badly missed – while the likes of man-of-the-match Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan, Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss and Luke Fitzgerald showed all of their winning experience in the high pressure of knock-out rugby.

Leo Cullen’s men now await the winner of tomorrow’s second semi-final between Connacht and Glasgow Warriors. The prospect of the eastern province facing off against Pat Lam’s men in Edinburgh next weekend is a thrilling one.

Fitzgerald’s early aerial dominance above Andrew Trimble set out Leinster’s stall at the RDS as he won one of several superb Reddan box kicks down the left to launch their first real attack of the evening.

A passage of intense pressure – interrupted only by Ruan Pienaar’s poor attempt to box clear – ended a Nacewa try out on the right, Reddan skipping Dave Kearney, who did well to avoid the ball, to find his fullback on the right touchline 15 metres out.

Nacewa skinned Craig Gilroy on the outside and stepped powerfully back inside Jared Payne’s tackle attempt, carrying Luke Marshall over the line with him.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton was in supreme form. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A confident Sexton converted and added a 10th-minute penalty from 40 metres out after Jack McGrath cleverly, and cynically, trapped Chris Henry in a ruck, preventing the openside from rolling away. Referee Ian Davies bought the trick.

Ulster appeared rattled, Trimble losing another aerial duel to Fitzgerald in the meantime, and then Stuart McCloskey’s loose pass on a loop play sent them scrambling. Leinster counter-rucked over Trimble after he cleaned up, and the home side went back into their 22 game.

They looked like the Leinster of old with their ultra-high-tempo, one-out rugby, carrying with aggression and clearing rucks with utter venom. Ulster crept offside and Sexton made it 13-0.

Ulster badly needed a response but were initially met by brilliant Leinster resistance. Te’o made some bone-shuddering hits, Rhys Ruddock saved a try in scragging Marshall on a Paddy Jackson inside pass, then Te’o and Nacewa hammered Iain Henderson into touch.

A Gilroy grubber was intelligently shut down by Kearney, shielding Sean Reidy away from the ball to allow Reddan to kick clear from behind his own tryline, but Ulster came again until Leinster cracked and Mick Kearney went off his feet at a ruck.

Jackson slotted the shot at goal for 13-3 and added another penalty in the 29th minute when Richardt Strauss was adjudicated to have played that ball at a ruck when off his feet, under the Leinster posts. Davies kept his card in his pocket but Jackson made it 13-6.

That period of Ulster pressure had stemmed from a TMO review of the McGrath’s high tackle on Marshall, slowing the relentless pace of the game but providing Ulster with the in they needed.

A brilliant first half was not finished there, as Pienaar sniped in the Leinster 22 to bring Ulster to within three metres. Jackson calmly delivered a pass to Gilroy in the left corner and the wing did superbly to beat Kearney to dot down.

Craig Gilroy scores a try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A TMO review was needed again, with the replays failing to show that Gilroy’s left foot had hit the touchline as he slid towards scoring. Jackson was wide with the conversion attempt, but the game was evenly poised at 13-11 in Leinster’s favour at the break.

A huge Henderson break from the halfway line early in the second half appeared to suggest Ulster would remain in the ascendancy, but Leinster’s defence recovered after Nacewa had halted the rampaging blindside, Sexton assisting.

Jordi Murphy and Jack McGrath absolutely hammered Peter Browne in the tackle to win back metres, before Heaslip pounced over the ball at a loose Ulster ruck to secure a turnover penalty.

Leinster firmly took control thereafter. Ringrose sparked their second try, switching play at a ruck near the Ulster 22-metre line and finding Sexton to his left. The out-half drew Best and released Te’o into space, the inside centre taking full advantage.

Te’o drew in Pienaar and Trimble, then lifted the ball over the Ulster pair to drop a basketball-style offload into the waiting hands of Heaslip on his left. Jackson stood no chance as the number eight ploughed over him in the left corner to score.

Sexton, now positively purring, caressed over a lovely conversion for a 20-11 lead. There was a rare Te’o error after the restart as he knocked on, but Leinster’s scrum simply won the ball against the head.

Indeed, that set-piece became a particular area of strength. Sexton’s kicking class shone before Tadhg Furlong and Sean Cronin made a big impact off the bench, driving through the Ulster front row to win a penalty that Sexton successfully kicked.

Inside the final quarter, the Leinster scrum continued to grow as a force. Heaslip burst off a powerful close-range shunt from the home side’s pack, allowing Reddan to find Cronin. The replacement hooker stepped inside the despairing tackle attempt of Pienaar to dot down, Sexton again converting.

Jamie Heaslip scores a try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A superbly-worked set-piece try from a scrum, Pienaar instrumental, allowed Gilroy in for his second as the game headed into the final 10 minutes, but even after Jackson drop-kicked the conversion at speed, Leinster showed steel.

They were forced to defend ferociously in the closing minutes, and Kurt McQuilkin will have been heartened despite the two conceded tries.

Leinster simply haven’t showed that ferocity enough this season, but tonight illustrated that when they do, they are hard to touch.

Leinster scorers: 

Tries: Isa Nacewa, Jamie Heaslip, Sean Cronin

Conversions: Johnny Sexton [3 from 3]

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [3 from 3]

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Craig Gilroy [2]

Conversions: Paddy Jackson [1 from 2]

Penalties: Paddy Jackson [2 from 2]

 LEINSTER: Isa Nacewa (captain) (Zane Kirchner ’49); Dave Kearney, Garry Ringrose, Ben Te’o (Ian Madigan ’69), Luke Fitzgerald; Johnny Sexton, Eoin Reddan (Luke McGrath ’69); Jack McGrath (Peter Dooley ’69), Richardt Strauss (Sean Cronin ’53), Mike Ross (Tadhg Furlong ’53); Devin Toner, Mick Kearney (Ross Molony ’67); Rhys Ruddock (Jack Conan ’74), Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip.

ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall (Darren Cave ’69), Stuart McCloskey (Stuart Olding ’58), Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar (Paul Marshall ’76); Callum Black (Kyle McCall ’47), Rory Best (captain) (Rob Herring ’74), Ricky Lutton (Andy Warwick ’8 to ’11, permanent ’62)); Peter Browne (Robbie Diack ’67), Franco van der Merwe; Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy (Roger Wilson ’62).

Referee: Ian Davies [WRU].


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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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