Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Ulster's errors undo final hopes

Disappointment for Ulster's Chris Henry and Darren Cave as Leinster win the RaboDirect PRO12 Final at the RDS

The horrible thing about finals is that there is no hiding place for the losers and you really felt for Ulster as, yet again, they could only collect their losers' medals and then look on and watch as Leinster celebrated lifting a trophy for the third time – Leinster A's British and Irish Cup included – in just over a week.

Johann Muller and his battered men gathered in the corner of the pitch alone with their thoughts in an area which not long before had been just a phalanx of Ulster flags and raucous noise bellowing out huge decibels of support as the 'home' side tried to make their comeback count.

And while Leinster drank in the adulation from the blue part of the ground, there was little solace to be found in the fact that 12 months on from suffering a heavy Heineken Cup final defeat, Ulster had at least significantly narrowed the margin of loss from that day out in London.

No, this one cut very deep indeed and there was no escaping some rather harsh realities foremost of which was that Ulster had been out-muscled and out-thought in a way which seemed eerily reminiscent to last month's flat Heineken Cup exit to Saracens.

Then Mark Anscombe's side had been undone by a combination of errors and an apparent lack of composure against a side possessing more of that streetwise ability to take into the game's key moments.

And it happened again on Saturday evening. We all knew Leinster were quality it didn't worry them that they went into the game without Lions squad members Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney with the latter pulling out just prior to kick-off.

Could Ulster have managed if something similar had befallen two of their key men? It was hard to see it.

Leinster also had the big-game players all primed with the marvellous Jonathan Sexton – how they will surely miss him as well as Joe Schmidt – being ably assisted by Jamie Heaslip, Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Jennings, Cian Healy and the now retired Isa Nacewa – high hit on Paddy Jackson aside – who all delivered and who all know just what it takes to win silverware.

They played it fast and direct but also with that bit more nous about them, facets that just weren't sufficiently there for Ulster. Leinster also seemed to know just how to play Munster referee John Lacey – who punished Ulster so severely in the first half with his whistle – and oh how they got away with things.

There was Isaac Boss picking the ball out of the scrum at Nick Williams's feet and Cian Healy deciding that it was fine for him to hang on to John Afoa as Leinster inched towards Ulster's line. Then there was a very tight looking call when Sexton's penalty touch-finder was ruled to have made gone the right side of Ulster's corner flag for the attacking side.

That one led to Jamie Heaslip's second half try which again saw some rather soft-centred Ulster defending and seemed to pretty much kill off their comeback after Ruan Pienaar had kicked nine unanswered points to narrow the lead to just four.

To their credit, though, Ulster didn't pack it up and Pienaar's marvellous long range penalty gave them a scent of something to play for, only for it all to almost inevitably slip away in that final 10 or so minutes.

Trailing 24-18, it was a big call to kick for the corner from a penalty as Pienaar had kicked all six from six.

True but with four minutes on the clock, and Leinster's restarts being so superior, it was probably felt that now was the moment to go for what could still have been a win had Ulster scored a try and converted it. Instead, replacement Iain Henderson took it into contact and was tackled by O'Driscoll before being penalised for holding on. With that it really was game over.

Of course they had sown the seeds of their own destruction much earlier on. It was only three minutes in when Sexton put a kickable penalty into the corner and moments later Leinster's driving maul had easily propelled Shane Jennings over the line.

It looked like it was just a training drill for Leo Cullen and his forwards such was Ulster's supine defence at the lineout – again a reminder of the Saracens game – and minutes later Sexton had a penalty to add to his superb conversion putting 10 points between the sides.

And after a whole series of Ulster put-ins at scrums from penalties on Leinster's line led to nothing save a lesson in the art being meted out by Afoa to Healy and, of course, Boss illegally stealing the ball, you could already sense that Ulster were going to struggle.

Robbie Diack's head-wrecking failure to score when he was put over the line just added to that sinking feeling and the sense that such a lack of accuracy would never do. Indeed, it was Ulster's only clear cut scoring chance and that, alone, said it all.

Though Pienaar's opening penalties saw the scoreboard read 13-6 to Leinster the concession, by Best, of another three-pointer just before half-time meant that another 10-point cushion existed between the sides and then Diack's yellow card three minutes after the resumption made it 19-6 and, well, Leinster were never going to surrender from there.

And, of course, they didn't even though they coughed up nine points with Nacewa binned for his collaring of the sharp Paddy Jackson after the out-half's searing break.

So there you have it. Though there was no doubting the desire and the hunger, Ulster just didn't have the game to make it three wins this season over Schmidt's talented squad.

Williams couldn't get going and was taken down low and early by blue shirts and neither Jared Payne nor Tommy Bowe had much in the way of quality ball to work off.

And without sufficient presence at the breakdown, there was little hope of prospering. Even kicking some restarts to Devin Toner suggested lack of thought in the heat of battle.

It all led to an inevitable end with nowhere to hide and nothing to show for another season's effort.

Lesson absorbed, but lesson learned?