Leinster will play Munster in the Guinness PRO14 final in three weeks time after securing top spot in Conference A with two games to spare.
Despite missing a host of internationals and key players for the trip to Kingspan Stadium, the defending champions made it 13 bonus-point wins in 14 games this season condemning Ulster, who played the final 50 minutes with 14 players, to another depressing defeat against their Irish rivals.
An eventful first half, which lasted just five minutes short of an hour because of the number of stoppages, was littered with talking points and major incidents.
There were five tries and four cards – three yellow and one red for replacement Ulster prop Andrew Warwick after 31 minutes which effectively killed Ulster’s chances of upsetting the champions.
Both teams had spells down to 13 players and Leinster were ruthless in the second quarter scoring two tries when Ulster lost Warwick and Stuart McCloskey to the sin bin.
It had all started so well for Ulster with early tries by Marcell Coetzee and fit-again flying wing Robert Baloucoune, who marked his first start in over a year finishing off a brilliant move in the corner as Ulster raced into a 12-3 lead after 14 minutes. Devin Toner was sin-binned early for a high tackle on little Michael Lowry and Ulster capitalised with Coetzee punching over from close range in the ninth minute.
Two brilliant off-loads from Kieran Treadwell and McCloskey were the memorable moments in the build-up to Baloucoune’s try which he finished clinically in the corner.
Leinster managed the game superbly and their decision-making and composure meant Ulster’s early lead didn’t last for long. The half-backs of Luke McGrath and Ross Byrne steered them efficiently around the park and even though Jimmy O’Brien was sin-binned for accidentally making contact with Ian Madigan’s head to briefly put them down to 13 players they responded well with Michael Bent scoring from close range after 24 minutes. Ross Byrne converted to reduce Ulster’s lead to 12-10.
McCloskey was next into the bin for a deliberate knock-on and from there, it was all Leinster who notched up a further two tries before the interval.
Luke McGrath almost got over the line after a searing run by Max O’Reilly but Josh van der Flier made no mistake with Leinster’s second try putting them in front for the first time after 29 minutes.
With Eric O’Sullivan off the field for a HIA, his replacement Warwick was punished for a high elbow on Ed Byrne and received a red card.
Coetzee, who was struggling from a knock picked up earlier, made way when O’Sullivan was passed fit to come back on.
Ulster gave away nine first-half penalties compared to Leinster’s four and the home side could not keep the ball long enough to trouble Leinster, who grew stronger as the half wore on. That superiority was reflected on the scoreboard when Ed Byrne touched down for their third try, which Ross Byrne converted brilliantly to put Leinster 24-12 ahead at the break.
An electrifying break by Baloucoune deserved a try after the restart but his effort was disallowed for crossing and Ulster’s challenge wilted. Leinster secured the bonus point after 57 minutes when Rhys Ruddock finally got over despite several minutes of heroic defence by Ulster on their line. Byrne converted to make it 28 points in a row for the champions.
Ulster did get a third try but it took a massive effort to get it with Leinster defending their line as if the game depended on it. Nick Timoney’s sheer persistence paid off with Leinster finishing the game with 14 players when Ruddock was sin-binned for Leinster’s repeated offside infringement during a period of grunt work by both sets of forwards.
As if to remind Ulster once again of their conveyor belt of talent, it was one of Leinster’s newest stars Dan Sheehan who grabbed the fifth try on a sobering night for Ulster.
Rather than getting closer, on nights like this it looks like the gap between Leinster and the chasing pack is widening.