Leinster seal big Champions Cup win over Ulster at Aviva Stadium
Leinster 30 Ulster 15
There went the theory that this was the opportune moment for Ulster to face Leinster.
With so many of the Ireland's Grand Slam stars returning to the blue jersey for a first time since that momentous occasion here two weeks back, Dan McFarland's side's best hope of an upset always looked to be to hope for hangover but they struggled to find a foothold as their most trying of Champions Cup campaigns came to a close in this last-16 clash.
When these sides last met, back at the RDS in December, the lingering impact of surrendering a 19-point lead to a Leinster side reduced in numbers by Cian Healy's first-half red card had threatened to derail Ulster's season. Indeed, having scraped through to the knock-out stages with one win from four pool fixtures, it was a deciding factor in the northern province being dealt this most unenviable of tasks as they went to the home of the top seeds and competition favourites.
This time, barring the 3-0 advantage held early, there was no such lead to surrender. Leinster effectively kept their near neighbours at arm's length for the majority of a game that had plenty of derby day spice but was lacking in sizzle when played in damp conditions.
With the forecast rain arriving on cue, Leinster targeted Ulster's full-back Mike Lowry early and seemed content in the opening exchanges to back their superior kicking game and aerial ability.
It was after Nathan Doak had knocked over a penalty from in front of the posts with ten minutes on the clock that, after Lowry had done well to claim the restart, Ulster were pinged for going off their feet.
Ross Byrne duly knotted the scores with the visitor's advantage lasting barely more than a minute. They'll have known that, against a side like Leinster, such leads cannot be surrendered so easily.
Not that it mattered, for they wouldn't have another.
As the first quarter came to an end, and the first fracas of the contest had burnt itself out, a scrum penalty to Leinster saw Leo Cullen's men head for the corner. Ryan Baird ran through the tackle of David McCann and there was nothing that Rory Sutherland could do to prevent the score. The ball squirted from Baird's grasp after the grounding but the TMO correctly called the try.
As the penalty count began to work against Ulster - they would be responsible for seven consecutive blasts of Luke Pearce whistle to end the first-half - an infringement at the maul saw Byrne stretch the advantage to ten with 15 minutes before the turn.
This time it was Ulster who responded almost instantaneously. When Stockdale gathered his own kick and the ball was recycled for Billy Burns, the Ulster out-half had Nick Timoney, Robert Baloucoune and James Hume all to aim at outside of the Leinster cover. He chose the latter target for his cross-field kick with the centre, who scored when these sides last met at the Aviva in the 2020 PRO14 final, stepping inside James Lowe to finish strongly.
Leinster, though were applying all the pressure to end the half with a Jack Conan score chalked off by the TMO. Ulster were certainly living dangerously, and skipper Alan O'Connor was warned about his team's escalating penalty count, but to restrict Leinster to just a Ross Byrne penalty, considering the same man had been lining up a conversion not so long ago, would have felt like a small victory.
Starting the second-half eight points in arrears, Ulster swapped in Jeff Toomaga-Allen for Tom O'Toole, but there was to be no turning of the tide, the sight of James Ryan rising to steal one line-out from a promising attacking position surely deflating in the extreme.
There was to be a more costly line-out miscue with half an hour remaining, Leinster seizing on another missed connection at the Ulster set-piece. With Ryan batting the ball back and Josh van der Flier converging upon it, the hosts were suddenly on the attack again. With Hume binned for not releasing in the tackle, and Leinster knocking the subsequent penalty to the corner, Jamison Gibson-Park tidied up scrappy ball to zoom under the posts and effectively end the contest.
Ulster had stuck to task, most notably in defence with Leinster effectively monopolising possession, but never looked like authoring a shock and now their race was run.
Their most potent weapon, the maul, did register a score for Rob Herring with twenty minutes to go but any hope that flickered did so briefly with Andrew Porter burrowing over three minutes later to round off the scoring.
As the home fans who made up the majority of this capacity crowd filed for the exits, there was a sense that bigger battles lie ahead.
For Leinster, the quest for a fifth European star will see Leicester visit Dublin next weekend. All Ulster's eggs are once again in the URC basket.
Leinster:R Baird, J Gibson-Park, A Porter tries; R Byrne 3 pens, 3 cons.
Ulster:J Hume, R Herring tries; N Doak 1 pen, J Cooney, 1 con.
LEINSTER:H Keenan; J Larmour, J O'Brien, R Henshaw (C Frawley, 72), J Lowe; R Byrne (H Byrne, 72), J Gibson-Park (L McGrath, 66); A Porter (C Healy, 69), D Sheehan (J McKee, 69), T Furlong (M Ala'alatoa, 63); R Molony; J Ryan (capt) (J Jenkins, 67); R Baird, J van der Flier (S Penny, 54) J Conan.
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune (B Moxham, 78), J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns (S Moore, 54, N Doak (J Cooney, 50); R Sutherland (E O'Sullivan, 62), R Herring (T Stewart, 60-62), T O'Toole (J Toomaga-Allen, 40); A O'Connor (capt), K Treadwell (M Rea, 66); D McCann (H Sheridan, 46), N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Referee: L Pearce (RFU)
Player of the Match: J Conan (LEIN)
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