Defeat to Ulster ends Leinster’s three in a row dreams
By Daire Walsh
LEINSTER’S reign as Pro12 champions officially came to an end at the weekend, when a 26-10 away defeat to interprovincial rivals Ulster was compounded by triumphs for fellow play-off challengers Glasgow Warriors, Munster and the Ospreys.
With 13 points separating the fifth-placed Blues from the league’s top-four positions, their three in-a-row ambitions have been cut short with two games still remaining in the current campaign. When you consider that the province have been in the last five deciders at this level, it is a considerable set-back for coach Matt O’Connor, whose future may well be the subject of intense scrutiny in the coming weeks.
Much of the damage had been done prior to Friday night’s clash in Kingspan Stadium, with the disappointing reversal against the Newport Gwent Dragons on 12 April meaning that they required other results to go in their favour.
However, given the nature of the opposition, pride was also at stake, and Leinster did have fond memories of their most recent encounter with Neil Doak’s charges at the beginning of January. The Jack Conan-inspired Blue Army recorded a 24-11 success on that occasion, and they certainly made a blistering start to the proceedings in Belfast.
After a Jimmy Gopperth penalty had broken the deadlock (the New Zealander assumed place-kicking duties from Ian Madigan, who was relegated to the replacements bench), the powerful Ben Te’o broke through for a converted try. With just seven minutes gone, Leinster (who were once again captained by Naas’ Jamie Heaslip) had developed a ten-point cushion, and a sixth successive victory over Ulster was on the cards.
Yet, there was more than enough time for the northern province to build momentum, and they got it in the form of Iain Henderson’s 12th minute touch down. The half-back pairing of Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar were instrumental in creating an opening for the talented Irish forward, and with Sean O’Brien soon finding himself in the sin-bin, chinks were starting to appear in the Leinster armour.
A brace of Pienaar penalties offered Ulster a 13-10 interval advantage, and in spite of the best efforts from O’Brien and Cian Healy, all the second-half scoring came from the hosts. A yellow-card for Rob Kearney reduced Leinster to 14 men once more, and courtesy of back-to-back unanswered three-pointers by the ever-reliable Pienaar, Ulster were firmly in the driving seat during the closing-quarter.
Indeed, a well-worked try by Craig Gilroy (who has six caps with Ireland at test level) helped Ulster to close the game out, and simultaneously seal Leinster’s fate. Sexton’s return to the fold should re-ignite Leinster for the 2015/16 season, but for now they will hope to gain some form of solace from their final league fixtures with Benetton Treviso and Edinburgh.
There will still be Irish interest in the Guinness Pro12 play-offs, however, as Ulster and Munster made sure of their progression during Round 20. They are set to meet on Friday week, and the winner of that contest may well secure a home semi-final on the second-last weekend in May.