Ulster fell to their first Guinness PRO14 defeat of the season with a 24-12 defeat to perennial winners Leinster on Friday night.
Leo Cullen‘s side held Ulster tryless throughout the game and this was the first time Ulster have failed to cross the white wash for the first time since their 15-13 victory over the Scarlets on the opening weekend of the 2018-19 season.
Dave Kearney crossed for the hosts in the first half while Sean Cronin, Robbie Henshaw and James Tracy added second half scores to secure a vital bonus point win for the premier PRO14 side.
Leinster (5) 24
TRY: Dave Kearney, Sean Cronin, Robbie Henshaw, James Tracy
CON: Johnny Sexton, Ross Byrne
Ulster (9) 12
PEN: John Cooney (4)
Ulster made a decent start to the match with John Cooney kicking the first of four penalties after 14 minutes. Sam Carter, Greg Jones and Jordi Murphy were keeping the blue wall on its toes with strong carries that broke the gainline.
The problem in the first half was that Ulster struggled in the Leinster red-zone all night with their first entry only coming in the 32nd minute. This passage lasted a couple of phases before another penalty allowed Ulster to double their tally. Handling and passing accuracy contributed to the Belfast side struggling to generate momentum, allowing Leinster’s excellent defence to reorganise.
In comparison, Leinster converted the opening drive in the Ulster 22 with Dave Kearney scoring his 48th blue try and first against Ulster in the corner. Marcell Coetzee was sent to the bin for a high shot on Cronin after 29 minutes but Ulster weathered the Leinster storm to lead 9-5 at the break.
The team worked hard to maintain a very good defensive line and when Sean Cronin found himself isolated on the wing, a chop tackle from Ethan McIlroy allowed James Hume to get over the ball and win the penalty for Ulster. At half time, all was good from an Ulster perspective; they had a four point lead despite spending ten minutes with a man in the bin.
The second half was all one-way traffic in favour of the Dublin side with the majority of the half being spent in Ulster territory. Leinster played in a suffocating fashion, forcing Dan McFarland‘s side into mistakes resulting in a try from Sean Cronin.
Leinster’s ability to hold onto the ball caused Ulster all sorts of pressure. While I thought Ulster defended very well throughout the match, the ball retention from the home side kept them in position and allowed them to pounce when offered a half chance. Individual missed tackles allowed Henshaw a gap and the former Connacht man had too much momentum for the scrambling defence.
Cooney added his fourth penalty to bring Ulster to within five minutes of the match with 11 minutes to be played even though they had not yet made a foray into the Leinster 22. Overall Ulster only made clear breaches of the Leinster 22m line twice – once in the first half which resulted in the second penalty kick and the other came in the last play of the game.
It was a tough night for Ulster and while the result was disappointing, I think there were individual performances and certain aspects of that game that were positive.
Leinster: Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, Scott Fardy, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris. Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Harry Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien.
Ulster: Michael Lowry, Matt Faddes, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy, Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Sam Carter, Greg Jones, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetze. Replacements: John Andrew, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney, David Shanahan, Ian Madigan, Ben Moxham
Who stood out?
For me, Jordi Murphy was Ulster’s standout player. He was a threat at the breakdown and worked tireless in defence, putting in 20 tackles without miss (stat from Ulster Rugby website) while was top ball carrier in the forwards. Greg Jones, Sam Carter and Rob Herring also put in very good shifts in the pack.
In the backs, Ethan McIlroy and Michael Lowry were assured under the high ball while the ex Methody player showed very good appreciation of the laws to keep this ball in from a Johnny Sexton penalty:
Where now for Ulster?
I’m not sure. Doubts have surfaced over whether the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup will continue with the French government looking like it will not allow the TOP14 sides to play against British and Irish sides. It has been reported that the French clubs are already planning to play domestic fixtures the next two weekends, so I will be surprised if any European rugby will be played. This must also throw the Six Nations which is due to kick off in less than a month into jeopardy
In the league there’s five rounds of the regular season left although the fixtures are yet to be confirmed. This result has narrowed Ulster’s lead at the top of the conference to five points with Leinster having two games in hand against Scarlets and Munster. I think we will need a favour from one or more of those sides while we will need to win our remaining matches.