Ulster mauled by merciless Leinster
Leinster 42 Ulster 13
Within days of the IRFU unveiling their programme to promote home-grown talent, we saw exactly why they did it.
Last night's Pro12 clash between Leinster and Ulster featured no overseas 'stars' -- Leo Auva'a, a player who worked his way up through the All-Ireland League with Old Belvedere, got Man of the Match for Leinster and Ulster had their naturalised uncapped South African Robbie Diack, but after that it was guaranteed Irish -- and the contest was all the better for it.
Brian McLaughlin had kept back his Springbok contingent for the home clash with Munster on Friday and picked a side of AIL/Academy players while Leinster, although also resting a clutch of frontliners, were still able to name a side containing 10 Irish internationals and several future candidates.
The odds were 1/100 on Leinster, the spread was 27 points and the signs were ominous for the visitors, who took to the pitch looking like they had taken a wrong turn after being booked for the mini-rugby match at half-time.
Their average age had been reduced further into Jedward fan territory when Simon Danielli was a late withdrawal, with Conor Gaston coming on the left wing in his stead. However, Ulster's youngsters showed enough skill, resolve and sheer gumption to heap further scorn on the province's decision to sign 36-year-old Stefan Terblanche on a short-term deal.
You would think Ulster would have tried to get some value for money by playing Terblanche here as well as involving him next Friday, but the main question remains: why was he signed in the first place?
That was certainly being asked when Chris Cochrane, showing commendable strength and velocity, stormed over for an Ulster try just after half-time, James McKinney's conversion making it 21-13 to the home side.
Ulster were supposed to have been 50 points down by then and that looked to be the way it was heading when Leinster worked their phases into double figures with their first possession after Ian Madigan got proceedings under way. You waited for the youngsters to cave, but they kept their shape with admirable composure and after 12 minutes, it was still scoreless -- Ulster actually engineering a penalty attempt which McKinney was unable to convert.
However, a knock-on under no pressure allowed Leinster to set up camp and, although sterling defence saw Cian Healy and then Auva'a held up over the line when it seemed quids-in on a score, the pressure told when Fionn Carr scooted over out wide.
An excellent try for Sean Cronin, following superb work by McFadden and Fitzgerald and a sublime Madigan pass, gave Leinster a 14-0 lead -- McFadden converting both scores -- but two penalties by McKinney meant Ulster were only eight points behind with the first half ticking down.
Unfortunately for the northerners, they were unable to resist a series of Leinster scrums in front of the posts with Auva'a steam-rolling over, McFadden making it 21-6.
The expectation was that Leinster would re-emerge and blow the upstarts away, but Cochrane's try immediately put paid to that notion and it was still only a nine-point deficit heading into the final quarter -- McFadden skewing a penalty kick he would ordinarily pot for fun (his first miss in 15 attempts).
Ulster's defence and doggedness in the scrum had been a feature of their performance thus far, but Mike Ross and company began to put on the squeeze and a penalty try -- converted by McFadden -- made it 28-13. With the bonus point in the satchel and Ulster ringing the changes, Leinster upped the ante.
"You'll never play for Ireland" had been the first-half taunt by Ulster's travelling fans when Madigan missed a routine kick to touch, but the out-half, who once again produced some superb moments of skill, swivelled over for his sixth try in 12 outings to provide the answer.
It was good also to see Jamie Hagan deliver a spirited cameo, rewarded with a try as Leinster wrapped up proceedings. It was the expected heavy victory against understrength opponents, but there was more to it than simply that.
The spread was beaten, Leinster got the bonus-point win they needed to keep them motoring along at the top of the table, Ulster can take plenty of heart from this brave, young display, the Christmas crowd had seven tries and a lively contest to keep them warm, and Irish rugby had further proof of the talent bubbling under.
Everyone was a winner -- well, unless you are an agent for southern hemisphere mercenaries.
LEINSTER -- L Fitzgerald; D Kearney (E O'Malley 62), F McFadden, G D'Arcy, F Carr (A Conway 52); I Madigan, E Reddan (I Boss 72); C Healy (J McGrath 68), S Cronin (R Strauss 64), M Ross (J Hagan 68); D Browne, D Toner (S Sykes 72), K McLaughlin (R Ruddock 56), S Jennings (capt), L Auva'a.
ULSTER -- P Nelson; C Cochrane (R Andrew 78), M Allen, C Farrell, C Gaston; J McKinney (S Olding 68), P Marshall (I Porter 68); C Black (J Cronin 68), N Brady (capt, N Annett 73), A Macklin (T Court 40); T Barker (C Joyce 20, J Simpson 73), L Stevenson; N McComb, A Birch, R Diack.
REF -- P Fitzgibbon (Ireland).