Ulster's star keeps on soaring
It was an open and shut case really. Those with the greater desire, strength and composure to deliver did so and, for once, it wasn’t the side in blue which held all the aces.
It was even hinted at afterwards that Ulster are beginning to resemble ‘the Leinster way’ even more than in their off-field structure, by having constructed an impressive string of results to put themselves in a strong position in both Europe and the PRO12.
The analogy was not without a certain ring of credibility though Leinster are currently in an unusual place, struggling with results, injuries and player availability. Joe Schmidt’s side are certainly canny enough to bounce back and, with so much of the season to come, Ulster know that no realistic thoughts of silverware can even be entertained yet by anyone around Ravenhill.
And now, Mark Anscombe has a visit to Thomond Park ahead of him which looks as if it will see both coaches field weakened sides due to the Ireland get-together this week and the need, the Ulster coach admitted, of resting some of his players after their recent endeavours.
“I’m proud of the way the guys played,” Anscombe said, before singling out those he felt had given great service.
“We’ve got three frontline locks out injured and the guys who stepped into the job did an outstanding one and I thought Robbie Diack did a great job.
“Nick Williams, I thought, played well the week before and backed it up again but Roger Wilson (who came on) is playing well, so you’ve got some real depth there and that’s all you can ask for, I suppose.”
Whatever way this week pans out, to be nine points clear in the PRO12 and 16 ahead of fifth-placed Leinster — last season’s beaten finalists — is not a bad place to be.
And this was an impressive result. On just about every front all the hunger, focus, motivation and determination belonged to the home side.
Nowhere was it more abundantly displayed than when Williams knocked Leo Cullen into another time zone and Tom Court buried recent Kiwi import and now Ireland international Michael Bent in the scrums to give Declan Kidney a firm reminder of what he can still do.
Yet all was not entirely right, with Paddy Jackson again not looking his usual composed self though, thankfully, Ruan Pienaar was there to pick up the pieces.
It was a strange build-up as, unusually, both sides had felt the need to get back to winning ways and, because of the flags protest, Leinster arrived even earlier than normal with rather more time to kill. If Leinster were, perhaps, under-cooked — it’s hard to recall Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy ever having less of an impact on a game — they were definitely undermined by injuries and the unavailability of Jonathan Sexton and Mike Ross but then, again, so were Ulster who were still able to cope despite their troubles, most notably focused in the second row.
Indeed, the crucial factor was that Anscombe’s squad had something more to prove to recover from their first loss of the season to Northampton, to take their winning run in the PRO12 League to all 11 games so far, and set the record straight against the side which torched them in last season’s Heineken Cup final and has frequently vanquished them over recent times.
So, all those boxes were ticked, though the unfortunate Bent also had the ignominy of being cut in two by a Court tackle while Williams, John Afoa and the tireless skipper Chris Henry were huge in defence.
That’s not to say Ulster had things all their own way and they trailed 6-0 early on. But with Pienaar directing their kick and chase game at Leinster’s back three and Court, Rory Best and Afoa turning the screw up front, Ulster gradually got on top.
Penalties from Jackson and Pienaar levelled matters before a penalty try – off a five metre scrum – put Ulster 13-9 in front at half-time.
The remainder was mostly about Ulster striking and then absorbing what Leinster threw at them — particularly after Best’s 70th minute sin-binning — Williams getting a TMO-assisted try and Andrew Trimble rounding things off from Pienaar’s marvellous cross-kick.
Fergus McFadden’s late try, converted by Madigan, didn’t even bring the visitors consolation from a losing bonus point.
All in all, not a bad way for Ulster to enter the festive period.