Leinster secured a tight 22-20 win at Ravenhill on a fantastic night in Belfast that saw Ulster reduced to fourteen men.
In a hugely anticipated game, Ian Madigan led the battle of the 10s with two early penalties to put Leinster 6-0 ahead. However, the night would go pear shaped for Madigan, with the Leinster man missing a number of kickable opportunities on the night. His opposite number, Paddy Jackson, was spurred on by the raucous Ravenhill crowd and put in a man-of-the-match performance.
The big talking point came on the 16th minute when Tom Court was shown red for a tackle on Devin Toner. The prop lifted Toner in the air, and the referee had no choice but to show the Ulster forward his marching orders. It wasn’t as controversial as the Jared Payne dismissal against Saracens, but a big moment in the game’s outcome no doubt.
Ulster responded brilliantly to being reduced to 14 men with Paddy Jackson touching down for their only try on the 24th minute. Ian Madigan attempted clearance was blocked down and recovered by Jackson who crossed the whitewash despite being on the end of a high tackle from Rob Kearney.
Kearney was given a yellow card, a decision that bemused the Ravenhill crowd and Jackson missed the resulting conversion. A controversial decision from the referee as a) he could have given Kearney his marching orders, and b) a penalty try would have given Jackson an easy kick in front of the posts.
The flurry of first-half cards continued just four minutes later as Rhys Ruddock was shown a yellow for tackling the omnipresent Jackson in the air. Ruddock can consider himself unlucky, as replays showed that Zane Kirchner may have shoved him into Jackson’s direction as the South African lost his balance.
It was now 14 vs 13 in favour of Ulster despite the Northern province receiving an early red card. Incredible stuff.
Further penalties from Jackson and Madigan saw the teams go in at the half separated by the minimum, with Leinster leading 9-8.
Madigan capitulated in the second half and missed two kickable penalties, with the first a disgraceful effort that never looked like going over.
One thing you cannot take away from Madigan is his steely resilience and the Blackrock man put his misses behind him to extend Leinster’s lead with a 53rd minute penalty.
Ulster grew in strength from this moment on and Jackson reduced the arrears with another penalty following a poor Leinster maul. The Ravenhill crowd, vocal throughout, reached new levels and sensed an upset was within their reach.
However, Ulster were dealt a hammer blow just two minutes later as Shane Jennings touched down for Leinster following a knock on from Tommy Bowe. Madigan dispatched the conversion with ease. 19-11 to the boys from Donnybrook.
Paddy Jackson once again reduced the deficit with a penalty following a fantastic break from Darren Cave, who came on in place of Luke Marshall. Cave was vocal throughout the season about Joe Schmidt’s failure to call him and other Northern players up to the Ireland squad and did his chances no harm with an impressive display.
Jimmy Gopperth replaced the inconsistent Madigan and increased Leinster’s advantage with his first touch. 22-14 in favour of Leinster.
Most sides with fourteen men would have rolled over at this stage but not Ulster. Boosted by the raucous Ravenhill crowd, Ulster began to take control of the game, with Jackson continuing to dictate matters. The star of the show added another two penalties to make it 20-22 in favour of Leinster, a result that ensured Ulster of a place in the RaboDirect Pro12 semi-finals.
It was a fantastic performance from the 22-year-old and his confidence and composure was evident throughout. In the battle of 10s, Jackson was victorious on a night that Ian Madigan will want to forget. Leinster take the win, but Ulster take the plaudits.
Roll on the semi-final!
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Richard Barrett, Pundit Arena