Belfast Telegraph

Pressure is building on Doak's misfiring Ulster side

Leinster 24-11 Leinster

By Michael Sadlier

It wasn't a great spectacle but then that was to be expected as we had two sides fairly low on confidence battering away at each other but, yet again, it was Leinster who managed to uncover the route-map to victory in Dublin on Saturday.

And, of course, they seem to nearly always find a way to get around Ulster but, after this latest setback, Neil Doak's squad have now managed to lose three of their last four PRO12 games to take their pretty dire away record to a mere one win in six.

Still, even though this opening reverse of the New Year - they have now also lost four of their last six games in both competitions and three from four in the PRO12 - saw Ulster slip a place to fifth, while Leinster rose from sixth to fourth, there is still a fairly wafer-thin margin, a mere two points, between Ulster and Munster who are in third while only five between the Kingspan side and leaders the Ospreys.

Yes, but all this has come courtesy of a bizarre round 12 when all three leading sides lost.

Ulster, though, will be thankful for anything which has unexpectedly assisted them and the avoidance of rather more serious damage having been done to their continuing bid at hunting down a rather more permanent presence in the top four while, injury wise, aside from Tommy Bowe's apparent dead leg, they may also have actually come through with a reasonably clean bill of health.

Mind you, with five home and away games remaining in the regulation season, and nasty looking visits to the Galway Sportsground and Scotstoun coming in April and May respectively, never mind the immediate prospect of going to Treviso on Sunday, Ulster really must start picking up some victories when venturing from the Kingspan.

But back to last Saturday and, as usual, it was an occasion which threw up a few talking points with Leinster prop Jack McGrath's apparent stamping on Rory Best's ankles managing to go unpunished by Italian referee Marius Mitrea.

Leinster's cause, though, was given crucial propulsion by the yellow card shown to Dan Tuohy in the 39th minute.

There was no disputing Mitrea's decision but the 10 points Leinster banked from Ian Madigan - a penalty just before the half-time whistle and then his try and conversion shortly after the restart - took the game just too far out of Ulster's reach.

In fairness, 14-man Ulster came back and how interesting things might have been had Ruan Pienaar - Paddy Jackson took none of the kicks - converted Wiehahn Herbst's try which would have made it 16-13 to the men in blue rather than 16-11.

But not for the first time, things didn't go Ulster's way just when they needed them to with Pienaar - again seemingly not hitting the ball with his usual power - missing three from five with another costly, though admittedly long range, failure arriving just a minute after Madigan had made it 19-11.

As for McGrath's apparent stamping, not long after the hour mark, had he been shown red it could well have proved a game-changer but it didn't happen and it's now over to the citing commissioner to see if anything follows.

Another huge moment has to be Madigan's 42nd minute try. Just when 14-man Ulster needed to hold fast they allowed themselves be fooled by the Leinster out-half shaping up to put a penalty close to their line into touch.

While Ulster took a breather and mentally bought into defending a lineout, Madigan - who ended up with 19 points and kicked five from six - tapped and went, bursting through Callum Black and Roger Wilson to score.

His conversion made it 16-6 and, as things turned out, effectively sealed the result with man of the match Jack Conan's last minute try rubbing further salt into some rather raw Ulster wounds though Madigan's 60th minute penalty - to take Leinster's lead to 19-11 in the wake of Herbst's TMO-assisted try - had already moved Ulster out of the losing bonus point zone.

If Ulster can take anything from a game where they struggled at the breakdown against a much more direct Leinster back row - missing Shane Jennings from the off and then having to make do without Jamie Heaslip - in which Conan shone with his dynamism and Academy player Josh van der Flier also stood out, then it was from the way they fought back with still 14 on the park to get that Herbst score.

True, it was nip and tuck in a scrappy first half but we had the sight of Tuohy making an early line bust then being ruined as he was hammered on the line and then robbed by Fergus McFadden.

And after Pienaar hit the crossbar with a 13th minute penalty shot from halfway, he did kick two to give the visitors a 6-3 lead at a stage in the game when Ulster had most of the possession and territory.

But then just as the half reached its end, Tuohy picked up his yellow with Madigan's third penalty making it 9-6 to Matt O'Connor's squad.

That quickly became 16-6 and Ulster failed to score again after Herbst rumbled over in the 49th minute with Pienaar missing the conversion and then falling short with a 61st minute long range shot.

With Leinster's bench, as expected, having greater impact it was little surprise that Conan finally scored against a visibly weary Ulster who just wanted to get back home.

Belfast Telegraph

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