Marcus Rea scores game-winning try on debut as Ulster win dead rubber over Leinster
Ulster academy debutant Marcus Rea scored the game-winning try in a man of the match performance at Kingspan Stadium as Ulster headed into the Guinness PRO14 play-offs on winning form.
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Even with the fact that both sides made 15 changes to their respective line-ups, you can never downplay a win over Leinster, and this 14-13 triumph sends Ulster into next week's quarter-final with Connacht on the crest of a wave.
Fergus McFadden, who was lucky to even be on the pitch at the time after seemingly headbutting Sean Reidy, had Leinster ahead at the break through his try after Jimmy O'Brien and David Shanahan had traded scores.
But replacement Rea, introduced for Reidy in the first-half alongside brother Matty in the back-row, was the game winner when he charged over the line following a 16-minute slog in the Leinster 22 midway through the second half.
With so many changes to both sides, and nothing riding on the game besides interprovincial pride, the biggest cheers were reserved for Darren Cave leading the side out at the start of the game in what is his final regular season game for Ulster before retirement.
The game itself proved to be a slow-burner, Ulster compounded by repeated errors at both the line-out and from the boot of misfiring fly-half Johnny McPhillips, while Leinster were being constantly frustrated by Ulster's defence.
Ross Byrne, the hero when the two sides met in that colossal Champions Cup quarter-final last month, had a chance to open the scoring with a long range penalty that he saw swirl up in the wind and drop short, but it would be he who would be the catalyst for the opening try.
That came after McFadden was fortunate not to see red after clashing with Reidy. The Ulsterman was no saint, grabbing the Leinster winger's shirt, but the experienced McFadden was reckless in forcing his head into Reidy's.
With what seemed to be a lack of angles on offer, there was no action taken by the TMO, much to the anger of Reidy, who was replaced shortly afterwards by Rea after shipping a heavy hit.
Rea immediately made his mark by working a superb turnover as Leinster threatened, and then backed that up with a thunderous carry at the other end, however he and his team-mates were largely powerless to prevent O'Brien from putting the visitors ahead.
McFadden, ironically, started it with a surging run through the middle that was backed up by Will Connors, and Byrne was on hand to fire a bullet pass to the left wing where the onrushing O'Brien was not going to be stopped in the corner.
The conversion drifted wide and within two minutes Ulster were ahead. Michael Lowry got his hands free in a tackle on halfway to release Shanahan into space and, although the scrum-half was caught by the chasing defenders, a couple of phases later he had the strength to force his way over at the line.
Once again, however, McFadden was central to Leinster leading at the interval following Byrne putting them ahead with a penalty, the winger going over in the corner as Leinster attacked off a maul with Noel Reid's excellent cut-out pass putting him in enough space to outpace the covering defenders to score.
The second half was not such an even affair as much as the scoreline suggested. On one hand, Dan McFarland will be delighted with how his side maintained the pressure on Leinster for a prolonged period, on the other, how long it took them to actually score was a concern.
Broaching the Leinster 22 in the 46th minute, Ulster wouldn't leave their opponent's 'red zone' until the 62nd minute with a try under their belts and Leinster with a man less - a testament to the hosts' patience but not their clinicality.
Leinster's defence was excellent, their discipline less so. On multiple occasions they infringed as their hosts went close to the line and eventually referee George Clancy lost his patience. Oisin Dowling was the man to see yellow for their third penalty in quick succession.
That led to the winning score and, ironically, it came at the time you least expected it. Forced back repeatedly by the 14 men of their visitors, all of a sudden Rea spotted a gap beside the ruck and picked and went through it. Jimmy O'Brien and Nick McCarthy were brushed aside and the try was scored.
In response, Leinster offered little. Ciaran Frawley sent a probing kick through for Barry Daly to chase, however it always looked too far for him to reach and when he smashed through the advertising boards and emerged with his arm in a sling, that was the death knell to their comeback hopes.
At the full-time whistle, Michael Lowry and Tom O'Toole embraced as if they'd just won silverware. It may have had nothing riding on it, but that was a big win for some of these young boys.
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