It took its sweet time but what threatened to be a damp squib turned into an absorbing BTK United Rugby Championship derby in Belfast with Leinster just about holding off a concerted home push across the last half-hour.
The visitors led by 17 points shortly after the interval thanks in the main to Ryan Baird and Dan Sheehan tries but a John Andrew score on the hour lit the touch paper on a game and an occasion that was compromised by some torrential downpours.
This one couldn’t have been primed better: two interpro rivals with a pair of wins under their belts early in the season and with an unusual number of internationals on show for a derby at any stage of a modern league campaign.
Ulster had ten in their XV – and would have loved it if Rob Baloucoune and a few more of their lads were at home and not on an Emerging Ireland tour. Leinster’s Test contingent numbered 13 and with Jimmy O’Brien and Ross Molony within a hair’s breadth of a cap.
Leinster absorbed a sustained and varied series of attacks from the home side before they claimed the game’s opening score, and try, after eight minutes. That it came from their first offering only added to the strength of the blow.
It was a beautiful creation, an intricate string of passes from right to left on the edge of the Ulster 22 in which Garry Ringrose played a gorgeous offload in the tackle before Dave Kearney put Ryan Baird in the clear.
Ross Byrne added the conversion before they put together another impressive defensive shift that halted an Ulster maul inches from their line. They did eventually relent in the form of a John Cooney penalty but it was slim pickings for the hosts.
Leinster’s second try was more direct than their first punch, a lineout maul ending with Dan Sheehan scrambling over for his 21st Leinster try and his fifth in just two games on the back of the quartet he claimed last week against Benetton.
Erling Haaland numbers, those.
It wasn’t long after when the rain cascaded down for the first time and reduced an already slippery task to something of a lottery for the rest of the half but, coincidence or not, it was Leinster who dealt with all that uncertainty the better.
The only other score of the half came from Byrne’s boot, the penalty coming shortly after Robbie Henshaw had been allowed claim an up-and-under on the home 22. A guaranteed video nasty when Ulster go through the tape next week.
The visitors looked comfortable shortly after the break when Byrne kicked a penalty to push them into a 20-3 lead, but the game flipped on its head midway through the second period after Ulster successfully defended a 5m-maul on their own line.
From small acorns and all that… From nowhere the momentum turned and the crowd started to buy in to the impossible dream as the screw was turned. Then Jimmy O’Brien was given a yellow card and John Andrew went over for Ulster’s first try from a maul of their own.
Cooney’s conversion stoked the fires further but the defining moment was only two minutes away with Aaron Sexton’s sliding score ruled out after it was adjudged that he had spilled the ball as he was crossing the chalk.
Kudos to Charlie Ngatai for making up acres of ground and forcing the mistake.
Cooney added another penalty with seven to go to leave just a converted try in it but, with Johnny Sexton and James Ryan coming on for their first appearances of the season, Leinster had enough nous and bite about them to hold out for the win.
M Lowry, A Sexton, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale, B Burns, J Cooney, A Warwick, R Herring, T O’Toole, A O’Connor, K Treadwell, Matty Rea, Marcus Rea, N Timoney.
J Andrew for Herring (23); B Moxham for Stockdale (HT); E O’Sullivan for Warwick, M Moore for O’Toole and G Jones for Rea (all 58); S Carter for Treadwell (63); D Shanahan for Cooney and A Curtis for Marshall (both 73).
J O’Brien, J Larmour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, D Kearney, R Byrne, L McGrath, A Porter, D Sheehan, M Ala’alatoa, R Molony, J Jenkins, R Baird, J van der Flier, J Conan.
C Ngatai for Kearney (HT); J Ryan for Jenkins (56); E Byrne for Porter (64); J Sexton for Byrne, N McCarthy for McGrath and W Connors for Baird (all 67); V Abdaladze for Ala’alatoa (73).
A Brace (IRFU).