365 turnaround

One year on from Leavy's horror injury and Stockdale's drop

Last year’s inter-pro European quarter-final was an epic.

IT WAS A game that had ramifications to reach beyond its 80 minutes, with one such tremor still being felt in the province that wound up winning the day.

Though the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final of 30 March, 2019 ultimately amounted to a 21-18 defeat for Ulster. Their performance, to pin Leinster to the absolute pin of their collar in the Aviva Stadium, represented a high water mark of their first year under Dan McFarland.

ulsters-jacob-stockdale-and-leinsters-adam-byrne Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

The former Connacht and Scotland forwards coach had taken over a team recovering from a scandal that had shook to the core of both the squad and the fanbase. But there they were in Dublin, a little over 20 years on from their European Cup success in the same spot, finding a way to frustrate – if not ultimately thwart – the reigning champions.

McFarland has made every effort to instill his side with a will to scrap, the ‘fight for every inch mentality’ that was burnished with a freedom of expression that gave Ulster players license to attack, to offload. To try and fail as long as they never wanted for effort.

This performance from the northern province had more to do with that tenacity than their cutting edge in attack. They forced their way to an early lead thanks to Rory Best charging down Garry Ringrose before Kieran Treadwell ate up the loose ball. And the Leinster centre was caught a second time by a hooker, this time Rob Herring, early in the second half..

Those efforts have served to work as a springboard for McFarland’s second year in charge, when his side have shown greater consistency and clarity of purpose on their way back to the Champions Cup quarter-finals – the stage they were due to face Toulouse in this coming Sunday.

Of course, it’s impossible to think of last year’s quarter-final from Ulster’s perspective without a sense of regret. What might have been?

Six minutes after Ulster walked out for the second half with an 11-13 lead, Jacob Stockdale seemingly produced a trademark gamebreaker. Barnstorming through Jordan Larmour, it was almost as if his speed was boosted by pushing off against Sean Cronin and he beat Dave Kearney to the corner. But there, he spilled the ball, raising a chorus of ‘I told you sos’ from every under age coach in the country.

For the 22-year-old, five months on from a match-winner against New Zealand, the error marked the levelling off of his meteoric rise. With summer and World Cup breaks thrown in, he had to wait until January of this year to touch a score down for Ulster to help banish the memory.

Heineken Champions Cup / YouTube

As cruel as those reminders will have been for Stockdale, even he would not have traded places for a second with Dan Leavy.

This day last year, the brilliant openside who played such a central role in Ireland’s Grand Slam year, was left stricken on the Lansdowne Road turf after a 62nd-minute ruck.

He was sorely missed by Leinster in the Champions Cup final, by Ireland in Japan and he remained sidelined when the season went on hiatus. Had rugby maintained a regular rhythm to this point, he would still be counted among the recovering.

dan-leavy-and-ross-byrne-with-eric-osullivan-and-sean-reidy Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

However, as 2019 turned to 2020, optimism for his return bled from those closest to him to Leinster’s coaching staff. And, having returned to running in February, the hope for the post-Coronavirus shutdown must be that he will be fit to re-join on-field training to some degree with with his team-mates.

Stockdale and Leavy are the headlining tales from a remarkable quarter-final clash, but the encounter was chock full of rich story strands. Two of them would bring about the dramatic conclusion.

After 10 months out with an ACL injury of his own, Luke Marshall was fast-tracked into the Ulster squad for the big night in Dublin and injected his inimitable running power in the minutes after Leavy’s departure. Stuart McCloskey’s gorgeous reverse pass allowed Billy Burns set Marshall away and the match was level at 18-18.

Yet from the moment John Cooney uncharacteristically missed the conversion, Leinster palpably went into Championship mode, displaying all their power and collective big-game experience to navigate their way back up the field and force a penalty.

It was a tight angle and Ross Byrne could be seen hobbling each time he connected boot with ball in the minutes that preceded minutes. Yet he had the icy gaze of a man who could see his chance.

From way out on the right touchline, a week shy of his 24th birthday, Byrne called the pressure onto his own shoulders and kicked through a pain barrier while directing the ball expertly between the posts.

For Leinster, it was both a let-off and a further example of their mettle and supreme personnel resources at their disposal.

For Ulster, it was a case of what might have been, but also of might they might become in the future.

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