Leo Cullen saw this coming.
The Leinster head coach told anyone who would listen prior to kick-off on Saturday that this was going to be a tighter squeeze than the bookies, or the experts, or the majority of punters predicted. He felt it in his bones that Ulster had a big day in them.
So it proved.
Tries for Kieran Treadwell and Luke Marshall were sandwiched by efforts from Ross Byrne and Adam Byrne, with Jacob Stockdale’s failure to add another for the Ulster men proving to be a sliding doors moment in a game that ripped expectations off at the hinges.
“Definitely, you are always so wary about teams that are close and are building and building,” said Cullen.
“They have a lot of positive momentum there and they’ve had disappointing days, and everyone is talking about Leinster are going to win and it’s just a matter of turning up. That’s just not the way it actually works in reality. Then, you have a slow start in the game on top of that and you have to chase the game. It is always difficult. Any game, when you are chasing it, is tough going in Europe, with the quality of teams that are there.”
Difficult doesn’t describe it. This was a penance for Leinster. A double shift on half a night’s sleep. It was extra homework on a Friday evening. Credit to Leinster that they ultimately answered every question asked of them, but they took little joy in doing it.
Cullen admitted that his side had delivered a mixed bag of individual performances. He pondered whether they were undercooked after so many had spent so long on national duties. They were,
he admitted at one point, fortunate to have won.
Even the victory itself brought little in the way of positive endorphins.
“Minimal,” according to Jack Conan. “There’s not a whole lot of enjoyment, to be honest. It’s relief, when Luke [McGrath] kicks that ball out. There wasn’t mad celebrations, or acting like we’d won anything. We were miles off our best and barely did enough to get over the line.”
But crawl over it they did.
Leinster displayed a championship pedigree in closing it out. Ross Byrne’s penalty after 71 minutes put them 21-18 ahead, having spent much of the game in arrears and the champions squeezed the pips out of Ulster and the contest from there to the ticker tape.
Leinster pulled through despite the absences of Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner and Josh van der Flier. They lost Dan Leavy, Jamison Gibson-Park and Rory O’Loughlin to injuries and they had to make do without James Lowe, because of red tape, and still won.
They should get better as the weeks draw us closer to the summer and their international contingent click into gear with those who weren’t away in camp for the Six Nations. More so if Sean O’Brien could find a way out of neutral at some point.
Maybe the main concern is the manner in which Ulster starved their attack of oxygen with the sort of blitz defence that proved so profitable for England and Wales against Ireland in the Six Nations.
That and the fact that such a young and still-improving Ulster side almost did for them.
The gallant losers also had obstacles to overcome: The visitors will rue the loss of Rory Best to an ankle injury towards the end of the first quarter, while the influential South African No 8 Marcel Coetzee was only fit enough to last 52 minutes of this white-hot interprovincial thriller.
Obviously, too, there was the Jacob Stockdale blooper shortly after the interval.
Cullen spoke afterwards about the concerns voiced in Leinster’s coaching box
towards the end of the game when the sides were level and they were down to the bare bones in terms of fit players. There was a real fear they would be down to a skeleton crew if the contest spilled over into extra-time.
All of which, added to the fact that a Conan break and offload sent Adam Byrne in for his try mere minutes later, made Stockdale’s failure to ground the ball as he crossed the Leinster try line shortly after half-time such a seminal moment.
“Obviously, [it was a] massive relief, but it was still early on,” said Conan afterwards. “
It was a such a tight game, it wasn’t the winning or the losing of the game. There were so many things that could change the outcome.
The problem for Leinster is that so many seemed beyond their control for so long.
J Larmour; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R O’Loughlin, D Kearney; R Byrne, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; S Fardy, J Ryan; R Ruddock, S O’Brien, J Conan.
N Reid for O’Loughlin (HT); D Leavy for O’Brien (52); J Tracy for Cronin, E Byrne for Healy and J Gibson-Park for L McGrath (all 58); M Kearney for Leavy (63); L McGrath for Gibson-Park (HIA, 66); A Porter for Furlong (67); R Kearney for R Byrne (73).
M Lowry; R Baloucoune, D Cave, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Best, M Moore; I Henderson, K Treadwell; N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
R Herring for Best (17); S Reidy for Coetzee (52); W Herbst for Moore (56); L Marshall for Cave (63); A Warwick for O’Sullivan (72).
Romain Poite (France).