Classy Leinster claim crown
Ulster's dream start turns to nightmare as Blues triumph
EVEN on a balmy autumn night, here was a memo from Leinster to chill the blood of the chasing pack.
Without needing to deliver more than a ghost of their better selves, Leo Cullen's invincibles advanced into unchartered territory as three-in-a-row Pro 14 champions.
As liquidators of hope and dismantlers of optimism, they are unrivalled.
A week out from a heavyweight European collision with Saracens, a year on from the September Saturday when Dublin touched the five-in-a-row stars, the city's other 24-carat platoon made it 25 wins in a row in all competitions.
That they wrote their names into history while holding Johnny Sexton's talismanic qualities in reserve for an hour speaks of a club occupying an entirely different terrain.
Ross Byrne simply stepped into the cockpit and piloted Leinster with the kind of authority that ensured the old master was required only for a final quarter cameo ahead of the season defining clash with the champions of Europe.
Ulster were accurate, confrontational and ambitious for 40 minutes, repeatedly launching fiery raids into the Leinster 22, forcing uncharacteristic mistakes from opponents accustomed to achieving effortless ascendancy. Yet, their challenge was reduced to matchwood with more than half an hour to play.
From the 46th minute when Robbie Henshaw brilliantly read the play and galloped to an intercept try, this crossed the borders from contest to coronation.
Leinster's energy and depth, the advantage in manpower, cutting edge and wit means they are running a different race to their Irish rivals.
Josh van der Flier - involved in a mighty duel with Will Connors for next Saturday's number seven shirt - rarely endured a moment when his presence didn't blaze. Yet the Man of the Match is not guaranteed to start in six days.
James Lowe illustrated that Salah-like eye for a score which took him to 30 Leinster tries in just 45 appearances.
By the time Caelan Doris was driven over for a third Leinster try, the evening was following a familiar script.
And, with James Ryan getting his first game time post lockdown, the Aviva course and distance specialists are primed for their revenge mission against the Saxon rivals who outgunned them in last year's Champions Cup final.
Like the rest of the Pro 14 field, Ulster were impotent to disrupt the one-way traffic against a team occupying a higher terrain.
Leinster were sluggish in the first half (though they still finished it five points to the good), but, like Lewis Hamilton, they have that extra torque under the bonnet, a capacity to hit the accelerator and disappear over the horizon.
Saracens, thieved by suspension of their fiery quarterback Owen Farrell, will require a supreme effort to end the most sustained winning streak in top level rugby.
Ulster had burst from the blocks with impressive intent.
The white knights, seeking only a second victory in Dublin in two decades, secured a start their coach Dan McFarland would have felt entitled to weigh in gold.
Stuart McCloskey and Marcell Coetzee provided the physical bedrock on which the early lead was built, James Hume blazing past Cian Healy and leaving Lowe for dead.
Ulster had fulfilled the first vital stage of the operation, gaining an initial foothold on the stiffest of climbs.
Tackling with venom, attacking with both wit and fury, it was as if they had taken as an affront one commentator's assertion that a game between the best two teams in Irish rugby would pit Leinster A v Leinster B.
That such an argument is built on solid foundations was evident in how the three-in-a-row chasing club responded to that early sucker punch.
Leinster's murderous efficiency, the relentless questions they ask are exhausting - mentally and physically - for whoever is caught in the blue line of fire.
Once they advance into the danger zone, Leinster are unrivalled in Northern hemisphere rugby in their capacity to fire the killshot.
The remorseless pressure they apply, the capacity to inject pace and create options inside the 22 are features they hope can take them beyond Saracens.
Here it yielded an easy try for the prolific Lowe, converted by Byrne.
When the out-half quickly added a penalty, Ulster optimism was being ground to dust.
By the 30th minute, the underdogs were breathing hard, fatigued by the gargantuan effort required to contain the uncontainable, conceding five penalties at the breakdown.
Still, though, with McCloskey carrying effectively, they were asking questions of the champions.
Twice in the minutes before half-time Ulster advanced to within five metres of the Leinster line, only to be met by unsmiling border guards in blue.
The same deadpan police who, by the time of the full-time whistle, were already turning their attention to closing a European door in the face of Saracens next Saturday afternoon.
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