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Ulster escape RDS with bonus point after notching six tries in losing effort against Leinster

Ulster scrum-half Dave Shanahan eludes the grasp of Leinster loosehead prop Peter Dooley in their clash at the RDS Arena (INPHO/Billy Stickland)
Ulster scrum-half Dave Shanahan eludes the grasp of Leinster loosehead prop Peter Dooley in their clash at the RDS Arena (INPHO/Billy Stickland)
Alan O'Connor captains Ulster on his 100th cap for the province.
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

In a year when Ulster’s form away from the friendly confines of Kingspan Stadium has improved dramatically, they ended their 2019 travels very much in the same way they began – a defeat in the RDS Arena.

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The province's first game of 2019 was a 40-7 reverse at this same ground with a similarly inexperienced line-up and, on a night when Dan McFarland handed four youngsters their debuts, Ulster would prove to be the latest side unable to live with the PRO14 champions and European favourites.

That being said, the point earned via the fourth of their six tries in the 54-42 reverse will feel the very definition of a bonus under the circumstances and the fight required to score the game’s final three scores was a more commendable effort on this patch than they’ve managed on any recent visit.

In a game that was essentially both side’s second strings, the Dublin outfit’s enviable strength in depth was displayed in a starting line-up that still boasted six players with international experience, and a handful more are expected to gain some in the coming year.

In contrast, with the likes of Iain Henderson, John Cooney, Jacob Stockdale and many more of their usual core saved for battles ahead, it was not a night when much was expected of the visitors, the side’s already long odds of victory stretching even further when the teams were confirmed on Friday lunch-time.

The opening minutes would sum up the first hour of the game well, with nothing to please either defence coach and Leinster outscoring their callow opponents at a two-to-one clip.

With Ulster pinged for a high-tackle after only 30 seconds, Leinster attacked sharply from the line-out with only a tackle from Craig Gilroy stopping the hosts getting to the outside off their first attack. The men in blue retained possession though and were soon on the Ulster line.

With Jamison Gibson-Park directing traffic as if orchestrating a blindside break, Max Deegan took matters into his own hands and stretched his way over despite the last-ditch efforts of fit-again full-back Rob Lyttle.

In a break from the developing procession, McFarland’s men would win a penalty from the restart, and with the champions pinged three times in as many minutes close to their own line, Ulster worked the ball from the back of the line brilliantly with Matt Faddes doing especially well to offload to Bill Johnston.

The out-half quickly found Lyttle, whose pass required a bounce before finding Angus Kernohan. The wing was in plenty of space but still with plenty to do but gave Fergus McFadden the slip on his way to the line.

Possession remained scarce though and, true to form, Leinster remained patient. Ratcheting up the phase counter, Angus Curtis went for broke on debutant Tommy O’Brien but just couldn’t hold onto to the centre’s ankles, and with Cian Kelleher occupying the space Craig Gilroy had been forced to vacate, Leinster were once again camped on the line. This time it was Scott Penny who crashed over.

O’Brien was front and centre again soon after, this time slipping under the tackle of Faddes who was shown a yellow card for the tackle. O’Brien was on his way down a split second before the contact but George Clancy and TMO combined to hand Ulster’s Kiwi ten minutes in the bin.

Already struggling to see any ball, things were hardly likely to improve a man down and so it quickly proved.

While Ulster’s defence was game – never more so than when Dave Shanahan somehow did enough to force a rampaging Deegan – Leinster looked likely to reach the whitewash in every persistent attack. Penny soon helped himself to another and Ulster were dealt a further blow with the injury sustained by Lyttle in making a tap-tackle ruling him out of the remainder.

That meant a first debut of the night and an hour long shift for the youngest member of the travelling party Ethan McIlroy. The Methody Schools’ Cup winner slotted in at full-back in a like for like change on a night he was surely aware much of his work would be of the defensive variety.

Robbie Henshaw was next over, taking Harry Byrne’s cross-field kick in stride, and Leinster had their bonus-point score before half an hour had elapsed. Faddes returned with his side 14 points worse off than when he departed. 

He’d go some way to make amends on the verge of half-time, pouncing on a loose ball that fell between Deegan and Gibson-Park before winning the foot race for the line with Rob Kearney, who inadvertedly tripped up the chasing Henshaw to allow the scorer of Ulster’s second try to make the conversion a good deal easier for Johnston.

There was still time before the turn for McFadden to add yet another for Leinster but the two tries at least had Ulster entertaining hopes of an unlikely try-bonus point at the break.

Resistance in the second-half was to last twice as long as in the first – five minutes having elapsed when Kearney went over.

Ulster’s most concerted spell of possession followed, rudely interrupted by McFadden brilliantly stroking the resulting penalty into the arms of Henshaw who sent Kelleher clear for yet another.

Leinster were purring, coming dangerously close to a point a minute and, adding insult to injury, chose this particular moment to call upon Cian Healy and Josh van der Flier.

A seemingly horrible injury suffered by Angus Curtis forced an already over-ran unit into deploying flanker Nick Timoney on the wing. It was the other wing, Gilroy, who would grab Ulster’s third, intercepting Scott Penny and running in from halfway.

Deegan would add yet another before Ulster got their all-important fourth through Greg Jones, although McIlroy deserves much of the credit for ensuring his side would return up the M1 with a point, earning the preceding five-metre scrum with a clever gather of a high-ball and a chip and chase that Kearney scrambling back.

With both sides having maximised their possible returns with a quarter of an hour still to go, the scoring pace slackened somewhat, although Ulster would add two more to rack up a barely credible tally of 42 points in a defeat.

They move on with a point more than they likely expected from the evening and onto a pair of home fixtures against Connacht and then Munster. Presumably with both a radically changed panel and vastly altered expectations.

Relive the game on our live blog:

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