Curtis injury adds to Ulster adversity in Leinster defeat
Leinster 54 Ulster 42
With half an hour of Friday's clash with Leinster remaining, what then seemed set to be an awful night for Ulster got a good deal worse.
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It was at that point, already trailing by 33 points and their opposition able to call on Cian Healy and Josh van der Flier as over-qualified replacements, that the diminutive Angus Curtis carried the ball into the teeth of the Leinster defence.
A young centre whose physical style belies his stature and whose bravery and determination is never in doubt, he found himself upended by a powerful tackle from Wallaby Scott Fardy.
The sound of his discomfort could be heard above the din of the RDS crowd, the big screens replaying a sickening collision that saw his knee give way from underneath him.
During an almost-seven minute stoppage for treatment that ended only when Curtis was stretchered into an ambulance and onwards to hospital, his team-mates busied themselves with handling drills until they had to refocus and resume the game.
Under the circumstances, and with flanker Nick Timoney forced to the wing to fill the gap in the back-line, few would have foreseen that the visitors would rally themselves to secure a try bonus-point in defeat, their first return of any kind from the RDS in four years.
"It's never easy hearing a mate scream like that," admitted Alan O'Connor, captain on the night for a heavily rotated panel. "It's tough when one of your boys is screaming.
"Angus has done everything right, he's running hard like he always does.
"It's always going to be disappointing to see that, one of your mates going off on a stretcher.
"We just said we had to make sure we're nice and tight and focused on the next job."
Scoring four of the game's five tries from that point on, Ulster's opposition had certainly eased off somewhat but there was certainly much to admire about that final 30 minutes.
Admitting to mixed emotions, O'Connor was quick to point out that even some return and a record points tally in a loss is still a loss.
"I think if you look at the final score it was close enough but Leinster had the bonus-point after 20-something minutes so they probably took their foot off the pedal a bit," he said.
"There was great fight from the boys and that gap (to sides like Leinster) is probably narrowing, but we've still a good bit to go. The guys coming through and the way we're training, we're definitely going in the right direction."
Of those players coming through, four were handed debuts on the weekend. Ethan McIlroy was an early replacement for an injured Rob Lyttle and looked especially impressive while Stewart Moore, Jack Regan and Azur Allison all had their moments too in more limited minutes.
In addition, O'Connor's younger brother Dave had a good game on the occasion of his first senior start.
"There's a lot of guys that have been working really hard to prepare the guys for European games and they got their chance," added the more senior brother after his 100th provincial cap. "They got out there and showed what they could do and there was a lot of good stuff obviously.
"I like to think they enjoyed it. They definitely played like they did. Ethan was great, Stu was great, Azur and Jack coming on and even Dave getting his first start, they're playing with confidence because of how they've been training."
It figures to be a more experienced panel that take on Connacht back in Belfast on Friday night, the middle interpro of this festive trio that concludes with Munster at home a week later.
While World Cup stars seem sure to get another week off, many of those more senior men who didn't begin their season in Japan should come back into the mix for this weekend.
Dan McFarland's former side remain the only visitor to have beaten the present head coach's Ulster at home, the westerners getting the better of their northern neighbours on their own patch last October after Mattie Rea was shown a red card seconds after the turnaround.
A revenge mission of sorts, O'Connor admitted an early focus of this week will be discipline after they shipped two tries on Friday night during a spell with centre Matt Faddes in the bin.
"Hopefully we keep everyone on the pitch this time," he added. "We had 13 at one stage last year and a full half basically with a red card. It just shows that if you lose a man you're chasing your tails.
"That'll be a big focus for us, not giving teams that easy access."