It was the deadest of dead rubbers, but the joy Ulster took from beating Leinster on Saturday suggested it meant something beyond a meaningless four PRO14 points to those at Kingspan Stadium.
Ulster’s fringe players beating Leinster’s fringe players, and holding them scoreless in the second half, gave the club just a second inter-pro win out of six this season and created a buoyancy which they’ll hope to take into this Saturday’s play-off showdown with Connacht.
“It means a lot to these boys,” said Ulster defence coach Jared Payne.
“They worked bloody hard for that out on the pitch and to get a win means a heck of a lot. The points don’t really matter but for the effort they put in, to beat any Leinster team, it’s huge.”
Connacht are the only visiting team to win at Kingspan Stadium this season and they will be back in Belfast on Saturday night. The winner will take on Glasgow away in the PRO14 semi-final.
When it comes to winning silverware, Ulster have not been part of the conversation for a long time but there’s a collective sense of urgency to try and send Rory Best off into retirement with some success at club level.
Payne admitted: “It’s up to the players whether they mention it or not... I’m sure it will be”.
“It’s massive what he’s done and (Darren Cave) Cavey as well. To send them off on a high would be something special.
“Hopefully they can but Besty knows that rugby can be awesome – but it can be pretty evil at the same time.
“He’ll do what he normally does, front-up every week and put his best foot forward on the pitch.”
Leinster had earned the right to rock up the M1 with whatever kind of makeshift side they wanted.
Banking the points early has allowed them to rest their key men at key times and they will slowly build up a head of steam again for the Champions Cup final against Saracens in just under two weeks time. Even though this was a non-event, they still fielded six Irish internationals in their starting team compared to Ulster’s two. The opening half hour was awful, littered with mistakes, and generally scrappy play.
The game was played between the two ‘22’s with neither side penetrating in typical end-of-season fare, but mercifully things livened up 10 minutes before the break when Leinster fullback Jimmy O’Brien crossed for the opening try.
Ross Byrne missed out Dave Kearney and floated a long pass out wide to O’Brien, who was steaming in on the left wing. In gusty conditions, Byrne missed the conversion having also missed an early penalty.
Ulster mounted a good response two minutes later when scrum-half Dave Shanahan danced through and evaded several tackles. Leinster failed to haul him down and Ulster players rowed in to bundle him over.
Johnny McPhillips struggled with his tactical kicking but did land the conversion to put Ulster in front for the first time at 7-5. Leinster had a good finish to the half though, Byrne drilling over a penalty in the 40th minute.
When he was awarded another penalty, he turned down the three points on offer and instead kicked to the corner. The play switched all the way over to the opposite wing with McFadden – booed by the Ulster fans after the alleged headbutt on Sean Reidy - darting over in the corner.
Leinster led 13-7 at the break but that was as good as it got for the reigning Champions Cup and PRO14 kingpins. They lost lock Oisin Dowling to the sin-bin for 10 minutes for repeated infringement early in the second half and Ulster spent the whole time camped inside their opponents’ ‘22’.
They pushed and pushed, going through dozens of phases, with debutant Marcus Rea nipping out of the back of a ruck and surprising the Leinster defence to score from close range.
As if scoring a try on his debut wasn’t enough, Rea also collected the man-of-the-match award. He replaced Reidy early on and got stuck in producing an incredible ball-carrying display.
It was a special day for the Rea household, with big brother Matthew in the starting team.
“Safe to say it’s a dream come true, first and foremost to get on the pitch with Matthew just to make the parents proud, basically.
“That’s what this week was about for me, the other stuff was an added bonus for me.
“Obviously it’s a shock to the system. There were certain moments that I could influence and I was just happy that I could do things to the best of my ability to help the team, whether it was the try or other small involvements that people maybe didn’t see.
“But to be honest the whole situation is pretty big at the minute. I’m just a country boy from Glarryford (in Ballymena) and that’s all I’ll ever be.”
M Lowry; D Busby, D Cave, P Nelson, A Kernohan; J McPhillips, D Shanahan; A Warwick, J Andrew, R Kane; I Nagle, A O’Connor; Matty Rea, C Ross, S Reidy.
Marcus Rea for Reidy (16), T O’Toole for Kane (44), A McBurney for Andrew (53), J Stewart for Shanahan (58), J Owens for McPhillips (58), N Timoney for O’Connor (63), T O’Hagan for Warwick (65).
J O’Brien; F McFadden, J Tomane, N Reid, D Kearney; R Byrne, N McCarthy; J McGrath, B Byrne, M Bent; O Dowling, J Murphy; M Deegan, W Connors, C Doris.
P Dooley for McGrath (44), C Frawley for R Byrne (44), R Kelleher for B Byrne (54), B Daly for McFadden (62), S Penny for Deegan (62), V Abdaladze for Bent (64), R Baird for Dowling (65), P Patterson for Daly (69)
‘If it was a headbutt, it deserved a red card’
Leinster wing Fergus McFadden’s season may be brought to a premature end by the citing commissioner after an alleged headbutt on Ulster’s Sean Reidy during Saturday’s PRO14 game at Kingspan Stadium. The 32-year-old escaped punishment during the first half with referee George Clancy and the TMO deeming the TV footage, which offered just one angle of the incident with no close-up replays, inconclusive.
Reidy was unhappy Ulster were only awarded a penalty, with McFadden staying on the field to score a try deep in first-half stoppage time.
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland suggested he expects the player to be cited.
“If it was a headbutt, it deserved a red card,” he claimed.
Saturday’s 14-13 defeat was just a ninth appearance of the season for McFadden, who has slipped down the pecking order at Leinster. He was already facing a battle to force his way into contention for the Champions Cup final and PRO14 semi-final games to come, but could now miss out through suspension if the citing commissioner takes a dim view of the clash.
“It’s hard for me to say (whether McFadden should have been sent off) because the referee did go through the process at the time and they did seem to be happy with the outcome that they looked for,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. “I’ll have look back at the incident again. I haven’t seen it up close myself.”