By Daire Walsh
A stunning display from rising star Jordan Larmour lit up the RDS on Saturday evening, when Leinster made it three interprovincial wins from three with a comprehensive triumph over Ulster.
A brace of tries from Larmour and Fergus McFadden were complimented by Barry Daly and Jonathan Sexton five-pointers, and a converted effort from Jacob Stockdale was all that Ulster could muster in response to this scoring blitz by the home team.
McFadden and Garry Ringrose were the only players to retain their place in the starting line-up from the 21-18 victory against Connacht five days ago, while Scott Fardy was restored to the Leinster back-row after a 40-minute appearance as a replacement in the same game.
The remaining 12 players in the Blues side were completely fresh for the visit of the northern province, who profited from the second-half dismissal of Sam Arnold to claim a morale-boosting success over Munster in their interprovincial derby on New Year’s Day.
McFadden has been enjoying a resurgence of sorts in recent weeks, and is becoming a regular fixture for his province in the majority of their big-time encounters. He made a strong break into the Ulster ’22’ with just over five minutes gone on the clock at the Ballsbridge venue, and and after he was released by the Suncroft native, full-back Larmour jinked past the defensive cover for an impressive five-pointer.
This was the precocious 20 year old’s fifth try in 12 appearances for Leinster, and further cements his reputation as one of the hottest prospects in Irish rugby. Ross Byrne is also becoming a viable alternative to Sexton and Joey Carbery at out-half, and he comfortably increased the Leinster lead to seven points from the subsequent conversion.
Though the visitors kept the in-form John Cooney (a PRO12 and Heineken Cup winner during his time with Leinster) in reserve, they still had a number of full internationals amongst their ranks.
Ireland skipper Rory Best was returning from his latest injury set-back, and he was joined in the pack by fellow Green Army compatriots Rodney Ah You, Iain Henderson and Sean Reidy. Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale formed a defensive quartet, while Charles Piutau (New Zealand) and Jean Dysel (South Africa) helped to increase the international quota at full-back and number eight respectively.
Yet, it was Leinster who continued to probe as the half developed, and McFadden looked set to cross over at the end a swift move across the Ulster defence on 16 minutes. He ultimately lost his footing when he had the whitewash in his sights, but after the play was switched to the left-flank, Barry Daly stepped past the challenge of Piutau to touch down in clinical fashion.
Byrne was wide of the mark from a tricky bonus kick on this occasion, but for the third game in succession, Ulster were made to chase down a considerable first-half deficit. Leinster did suffer a set-back in the form of James Tracy’s 27th-minute withdrawal, although the introduction of Sean Cronin in his place helped to underline the current strength in depth that the Blues have at their disposal.
Ulster edged that bit closer to the Leinster posts heading towards the interval, though fly-half Christian Lelaliifano opted for touch rather than the posts three minutes before the interval.
It looked like being a wise choice when Ulster spread the ball promisingly towards the left-corner, only for the final pass for Stockdale to drift into touch. Leinster thought they were over for a third try on the stroke of 40 minutes, as Larmour used his blistering pace to chase down a long kick down the line.
He squeezed past the retreating Trimble, and had seemingly done enough to convince referee George Clancy to consult TMO Peter Fitzgibbon. The video footage showed that Henderson had prevented Larmour from executing a firm grounding, though, and this was the signal for Clancy to draw the opening half to a close.
A 12-0 interval lead was a substantial one for Leinster, but from Ulster’s point of view, it didn’t necessarily rule them out of the contention. After he was denied a try prior to the break, Larmour suffered a similar fate when the action resumed.
He dived over the Ulster line after a superb link-up with Jamison Gibson-Park, but following further dialogue with the TMO, Clancy discovered that Gibson-Park was offside from the Larmour grubber kick that initiated the move.
It seemed like only a matter of time until Leinster added to their tally, though, and a third try finally arrived on 48 minutes. They moved the ball out wide from another incisive attack, and McFadden side-stepped his nearest challenger to claim an excellent try.
Byrne split the posts from his latest conversion attempt, and it wasn’t long until he was once again asked to step up to the kicking tee. Andrew Porter (a half-time replacement for Tadhg Furlong) left a number of Ulster trailing in his wake during a powerful carry, and with their opponents caught high up the pitch, McFadden broke free from a Gibson-Park pass to claim his second try in the space of four minutes.
A third Byrne bonus increased Leinster’s lead to a seemingly insurmountable 26 points, and this was the cue for Ulster to introduce Cooney, Alan O’Connor, Johnny McPhillips and the ever-popular Tommy Bowe from their replacements.
Cronin and Porter had already freshened up the Leinster side, and they were joined on the field by Ed Byrne and Sexton before the end of the third-quarter. Indeed, both teams had unloaded their bench by the 66th-minute, but the wholesale changes in personnel did little to change the outlook of the contest.
Many of Leinster’s key performers remained in situ, and following some swift passing on the left-hand side, Larmour got through for his belated second try of the action. With his first kick of the night, Sexton was narrowly off-target, though it was of scant consolation to their interprovincial counterparts.
With the final whistle approaching, Ulster were beginning to show some signs of life. Bowe broke forcefully into the Leinster ’22’, and though he was hauled down just shy of the line (and was eventually forced off with an injury), McPhillips passed outside to Stockdale for a simple finish.
Cooney split the posts from the resulting touchline conversion to cut the gap down to 24 points, but Leinster had the final say with a breakaway try from Sexton – who was on hand to convert his own score.
Scorers – Leinster: Jordan Larmour, Fergus McFadden 2 tries each, Barry Daly try, Jonathan Sexton try, conversion, Ross Byrne 3 conversions. Ulster: Jacob Stockdale try, John Cooney conversion.
LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose (Noel Reid 59), Robbie Henshaw, Barry Daly; Ross Byrne (Jonathan Sexton 58), Jamison Gibson-Park (Nick McCarthy 66); Jack McGrath (Ed Byrne 58), James Tracy (Sean Cronin 27), Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter half-time); Devin Toner (Mick Kearney 66), Scott Fardy; Josh Murphy, Jordi Murphy, Jack Conan (Max Deegan 61).
ULSTER: Charles Piutau (Tommy Bowe 55); Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Christian Lelaliifano (Johnny McPhillips 55), Jonny Stewart (John Cooney 54); Callum Black (Kyle McCall 61), Rory Best (Rob Herring 64), Rodney Ah You (Wiehahn Herbst 49-74) Pete Browne (Alan O’Connor 54), Iain Henderson; Matt Rea, Sean Reidy (Nick Timoney 57), Jean Deysel.
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU).