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A familiar feeling of dejection and pain for Ulster

By Nial Crozier

Leinster 13, Ulster 9

Same opponents, same outcome. For the fourth year in a row Ulster's season ended in defeat by Leinster in a winner-takes-all shoot-out. Nothing new there, then.

Of those four defeats, this was probably the hardest to stomach. Ulster led 9-0. Indeed, there were 58 minutes on the clock before the hosts registered their first points.

By that stage, Brian O'Driscoll had been withdrawn suffering from what Leinster would later describe as 'a neck injury' following a massive tackle by Ulster's Iain Henderson.

Everything appeared to be in place for Ulster.

They had dominated the first half and turned round with a 6-0 lead courtesy of two Paddy Jackson penalties in the seventh and 40th minutes, the second the only punishment they applied during Leinster's reduction to 14 men; Gordon D'Arcy having been binned for a late tackle on Tommy Bowe six minutes earlier.

Five minutes after O'Driscoll's departure, the Ulster fly-half made it three from three by adding a 53rd minute goal, leading the 4,400 who had travelled south to offer support to dare to believe that the bookmakers who installed Leinster as favourites had got it wrong.

They hadn't. Leinster did what Leinster do; they kept the faith, dug deep, tightened the screw, defended superbly and ultimately bagged the game's only try nine minutes from the end.

Ulster have only themselves to blame for this latest defeat at the hands of their oldest rivals.

With a 9-0 lead they were in a position from which to have won this game. And while the Leinster defence was top-notch, the fact remains that in view of the territory and the amount of ball they had, Ulster ought to have been able to finish the job.

Their best performers were two of the younger players – 23-year-old full-back Craig Gilroy and swashbuckling lock Iain Henderson, 22.

"I thought Iain Henderson and Craig Gilroy were outstanding," Ulster coach Mark Anscombe said.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt was an interested onlooker and neither of that pair will have done his prospects any harm at all.

The party for next month's two-Test trip to Argentina is named today and, while Gilroy may have left it a little too late to serve up this international-class display, Henderson can certainly look forward to facing the Pumas.

But there were other, older Ulster players who did not match that duo's appetite. Big occasions require big performances from those recognised as big-names. Unfortunately, some of those from whom Anscombe was entitled to expect more did not deliver.

Jackson's three penalties were hard-earned reward for Ulster's superiority up to just before the hour-mark. But that's when the tide began to turn.

Two Jimmy Gopperth penalties in the 58th and 63rd minutes served to raise hope in Leinster hearts and plant seeds of doubt in Ulster minds.

Now it was about continuing to adhere to the plan that had seen Ulster dominate up to that point.

But for the first time they began to waver and, like a shark smelling blood, Leinster went for the kill.

Summing up his post-match in view of what happened, Anscombe said: "It's disappointment because quite easily I think we'd all agree that we could be in a final now and it's just one or two little things...it wasn't major areas that we were unlucky or being pounded or whatever, we did enough there to win that game and again it's just not being smart enough or cute enough to finish off an opportunity and then being disciplined at crucial times."

With eight minutes remaining, Ian Madigan – O'Driscoll's replacement – went through the gap between James McKinney and Jared Payne and, having been 9-0 down 14 minutes earlier, now it was Leinster who led 11-9. Gopperth's conversion meant Ulster needed a try to win it. None came.

Captain Johann Muller said: "We've put ourselves in those positions for four years in a row now and still there is nothing in the cabinet for us. There is nothing to show for it and I think that's the disappointment.

"I've played in plenty of teams in the past and played enough games and sometimes you just need a bit of luck. Obviously this year – especially this year – we haven't had luck.

"We've had a huge amount of bad luck, but today wasn't one of those days – we were beaten by a better side at the end of it."

"If you look back on the last five-six weeks we've had a huge amount of bad luck. But I'll tell you what; if this group of players sticks together, and the new guys coming in, I've got no doubt that they've got the ability to win trophies.

"And I would love to come and watch them next year in the final and have a bit of champagne with them afterwards because I truly believe, I honestly believe, that it is possible for this team to win trophies."

Belfast Telegraph

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