A valiant effort from Ulster was not enough to win the province a first trophy in 14 years as they slipped to a 28-5 defeat in the final of the PRO14 to perennial victors, Leinster.
The gulf in class between the two sides showed in the second half as Leinster’s rugged defence sapped the life out of Ulster, repelling every attack that came their way.
Leinster (10) 27
TRY: James Lowe, Robbie Henshaw, Caelan Doris
CON: Ross Byrne (2), Johnny Sexton
PEN: Ross Byrne (2)
Ulster (5) 5
TRY: James Hume
It was Ulster who were first on the board however, with James Hume catching Leinster cold with a great finish from the opposition 10m. Tom O’Toole’s support line created a space outside Ronan Kelleher and Alan O’Connor’s timely pass put Hume through the gap.
Perfection is a necessity against Leinster. In that move everything was executed well, however it was one of the few times Ulster got in behind Leo Cullen’s defence. Ulster would go on to make only one more clean line break in the match, testament to how Leinster limited their attacking options.
Any other time Ulster broke the gainline, Leinster were able to marshal their defence quickly, preventing any further damage being done. Supporting runners were a fraction too slow or else a defence led by Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan put in a dominant tackle behind the gainline, forcing the Ulster backline to retreat and therefore creating that split second for Leinster to reorganise.
Ulster could have utilised their kicking game more, especially off nine as Jacob Stockdale beat James Lowe to a couple of garryowens in the first half. With a decent kick chase, Alby Mathewson or John Cooney would have got quick ball against a retreating Leinster defence, freeing more space to play wide.
Leinster dealt a succour punch to Dan McFarland’s side seven minutes into the second half. Robbie Henshaw read one of Billy Burns’ passes to intercept and run in under the posts. Even though there was over 30 minutes left on the clock, it was a tall order to overturn a 13 point deficit against a team so far ahead of every other side in the league in terms of resources and class on the pitch.
Similarly, I thought kick offs could have been better. Ulster’s tactic early on was to kick deep rather than to compete, however Leinster were afforded easy clearances with soft penalties being conceded. After Henshaw crossed we saw Ian Madigan take a short restart which Ulster regathered, they also regathered the restart after Caelan Doris’ try.
Leinster are the best team in the league by a big distance, evidenced by their muted celebrations at full time. It’s testament to the set up they have in Dublin that they went the season undefeated by largely putting out second string sides. There’s no shame in losing to the better team, and I think Ulster gave a good account of themselves.
LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour, Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park, Cian Healy, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Michael Bent, Scott Fardy, Will Connors, Luke McGrath, Johnny Sexton, Rory O’Loughlin.
ULSTER: Michael Lowry, Rob Lyttle, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, Alby Mathewson, Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson, Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy, Marcell Coetzee. Replacements: John Andrew, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Sam Carter, Jordi Murphy, John Cooney, Ian Madigan, Nick Timoney
Where now for Ulster?
McFarland and his coaching team have a big task on their hands in order to lift the heads ahead of the trip to Toulouse on Sunday. Saturday’s match will have taken a lot out of the side and they looked spent at full time as they were forced to make a lot of tackles and carry a lot of ball.
With Top14 rugby unavailable to watch in the UK, it’s hard to predict how Toulouse will play however I think they will hope to hurt Ulster out wide, through stars such as Cheslin Kolbe, Thomas Ramos, Sofiane Guitoune and Yoann Huget whereas Leinster play a more attritional game.