RaboDirect Pro12: Ulster 8-16 Leinster: Brian McLaughlin’s final home game as Ulster’s head coach ended in disappointment and real anxiety last night.
With the Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh now just a week away, Ulster lost three key players to injury and the match to opponents who continue to lord it over them.
This was Leinster’s 17th win in 21 games against their rivals. The teams who have scored most tries in the series managed just two, one apiece.
As a result of this latest defeat, Ulster’s PRO12 play-off hopes almost certainly have gone.
Of greater concern, however, is the fact that their European dream may have been dealt a real blow, too. Chris Henry, Paddy Wallace and Pedrie Wannenburg all left the field hurt.
The travelling party-poopers wasted little time in setting out their stall, with Ulster in trouble in the first scrum of the night.
Then Jonathan Sexton made an audacious break which put the wheels in motion for the first try. Leinster went through the phases and having drawn in sufficient Ulster players they applied the rapier. Ironically it was a man called McLaughlin — Kevin — who scored. Sexton’s conversion made it 7-0 with seven minutes gone.
Ulster struggled to get into a rhythm and when Henry limped off with a shin injury to be replaced by Robbie Diack after 18 minutes, an audible ripple of concern went through the capacity crowd.
There was a louder groan four minutes later when Ruan Pienaar clipped the wrong side of an Aquinas End upright with a straight-in-front penalty from 40 metres, but two minutes after that it turned to cheers when captain Johann Muller finished the work of Wallace and Lewis Stevenson by wrestling his way over for a try of dubious legality, albeit one confirmed by TMO Peter Ferguson.
Again Pienaar was off target with his conversion attempt, with Sexton duly adding to the Springbok’s frustration by banging over a 30th minute penalty to make it 10-5 to the guests. Wallace became the second Ulster player to retire hurt — Adam D’Arcy deputised — and although Pienaar reduced the deficit to two points with a well-struck 38th minute penalty awarded against Leinster hooker Richardt Strauss for a ruck infringement, Sexton cancelled that out on the stroke of half-time.
Trailing 13-8 and minus two key players, Ulster needed something special in the second. Too many handling errors, insufficient pace and creativity and uncharacteristically off-key goal-kicking by the normally-lethal Pienaar left them clinging on desperately in an attempt to keep their PRO12 play-off hopes alive.
They began well, going through their phases in the opening minutes. But with Leinster under real pressure deep inside their own 22, Ulster conceded a penalty, enabling Sexton to raise the short-lived siege with a penalty to touch inside the hosts’ 10-metre line.
With 48 minutes gone, Wannenburg — making his last appearance at Ravenhill — became the third Ulster injury victim.
He left to a thunderous ovation from supporters keen to acknowledge two years of outstanding service by the back row giant.
Neil McComb filled the vacancy as Ulster continued to struggle.
A third Pienaar miscue off the tee in the 54th minute suggested it was going to be one of those nights and it threatened to get worse when Brian O’Driscoll made a great break from inside his own 22 only to throw a poor pass at his centre partner, Fergus McFadden, on half-way. Had it been accurate, McFadden was away. Proof that Ireland’s captain is mortal.
A scoreless third quarter ended with Ulster applying pressure without really threatening a very well marshalled Leinster defence, witnessed by them pinching a ball which enabled Dave Kearney to break down the right only to be halted by the vigilant Diack who put him into touch.
Finally, after 28 hard-fought but sterile minutes during which not a point was scored, Sexton troubled the scoreboard operator by dropping a goal, the chance having come after Dominic Ryan was halted by superb Ulster defence on their own line.
The home side promptly won themselves a penalty which they popped into touch in the Leinster 22, only to be penalised for a crooked line-out throw.
As a spectacle it never quite lived up to expectations.