The grand opening of a brand, new Ravenhill was the setting as Ulster and Leinster collided but there was more than bragging rights at stake. Leinster were looking to cement their place at the summit of the Pro 12 table and secure a home semi-final.
Because of the Ospreys shock defeat in Parma on Thursday night, the equation for the Ulstermen was simple; a losing bonus point would confirm their participation in the end of season playoffs for the second year running. Reporting live from Ravenhill on behalf of Pundit Arena, the atmosphere was electric as the 18,000 strong crowd rocked their new ground’s foundations and the action on the field did not disappoint with plenty of controversy and debate created throughout.
1. The Cards
There is only one place to start off and that is the sanctions handed out by referee Luke Pearce, who was officiating his first competitive tie. The players and supporters of the Northern Province are starting to feel hard done by when it comes to red cards. Tom Court was given his marching orders after a dangerous tackle on Leinster lock, Devin Toner. According to the law Pearce had little option but to show the loosehead prop a straight red. Leinster coach, Matt O’Connor, said at the press conference that, “according to the letter of the law it was a red card.” But he went on to state that, “there was no malice, no intent and that a reporting system like rugby league should be used.”
Rob Kearney was sent to the sin bin after landing a high shot on flyhalf Paddy Jackson. However, Pearce awarded Ulster the try instead of a penalty try meaning Jackson had a very difficult conversion from the touchline which he subsequently missed instead of a guaranteed penalty in front of the posts. Ulster topdog, Mark Anscombe, argued that,
“if it was not a penalty try but a yellow card then the game should have been restarted with an Ulster penalty on the halfway line.”
The sin binning of Rhys Ruddock was unfortunate as he was pushed by Zane Kirchner into Jackson when the young no. 10 was in the air. The South African should have been pinged but Ruddock received the reprimand. A clearly irritated Anscombe said,
“I am at loss as to what the interpretation of a player being tackled in the air and what should be the punishment.”
2. Scrum time
It was predicted before the game that Leinster would be superior in this aspect as Ulster No. 3, Andrew Warwick, was starting only his second match at this level and his first at tighthead. The first engagements of the contest suggested that the predictions would come to fruition as Ireland’s loosehead prop was squeezing penalties out of the inexperienced Warwick for fun. This provided Leinster with solid foundations and easy shots at goal. But the Ulster tighthead regrouped and managed to hold his own for the rest of the game to his credit. Anscombe noted that “Warwick was outstanding” for his effort and application to a position that he had never played before. However, the Ulster eight could not pressurise their counterparts in the set piece and Leinster were never troubled. It must be asked whether Ulster’s third choice tighthead option, Adam Macklin, is up this standard if he is passed over by a player who has no experience in the position.
3. Paddy Jackson vs Ian Madigan
The duel that we were denied back in December when the two teams previously met was billed as crucial not only in terms of the result, but also as to who Joe Schmidt would pick as his back up to Jonny Sexton or even as a potential starter in Argentina. The Dubliner started the match in confident mood as he slotted two chances to give Leinster an early lead.
Madigan was controlling the tempo of the game as he pushed his dominant packed forward with searching kicks but also kept the Northern defence honest by spinning the ball out wide from time to time. But when Madigan had his attempted chip charged down by opposite number Jackson, the Leinster outhalf’s game started to fall apart. His place kicking was dreadful in the second half and eventually led to Captain Heaslip opting for the corner instead of the posts. Madigan kicked another penalty before being replaced by Jimmy Gopperth. O’Connor still does not trust the young stand-off to close out games for the Eastern Province.
Paddy Jackson saw little ball in the first quarter of the match as Leinster’s forwards held onto the ball superbly against the seven man Ulster pack. Although he started to exert his authority on the game when he finished well in at the corner despite Rob Kearney trying to remove his head from the vicinity of his shoulders. Jackson’s kicking out of hand was hit and miss the whole game but what would have pleased Ulster fans and even Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was the Ulster flyhalf’s accuracy off the ground.
Overall a draw would be a fair result between the two pretenders to Sexton’s shirt.
4. Ulster’s discipline or lack thereof
Mark Anscombe would have been tearing out the little hair he had left after watching his charges give away penalty after penalty. Ulster’s discipline really let them down as they were unable to create any sustained pressure on Leinster in defence or attack as they sloppily gave the Eastern Province an easy get out clause and also plenty of opportunities to score three pointers as they converted five kicks out of a possible eight.
5. Title hopes
Leinster will be confident of winning back-to-back titles as they have Edinburgh up next to secure top spot which would leave the Dublin-based side with a home semi-final and a possibility of a home final. But Matt O’ Connor will be concerned that his men were unable to put away a side playing with a man less for over an hour. Leinster’s end of season form has been underwhelming with defeats to Toulon and the Ospreys in recent weeks but this victory at Ravenhill may give them the boost they need to go and finish the year with more silverware for the trophy cabinet. They will be favourites but must be wary of a Glasgow side that are flying.
On the other hand, Ulster have limped into the playoffs and most likely will play Leinster at the RDS in a replay of last year’s decider. The Red Hands have great character and guts as shown in their performances against Saracens and Leinster but their inability to keep fifteen men on the field is severely handicapping them. They have the ability to win this league but their discipline is dreadful and it is most likely they will meet their doom in the RDS.
Matt Cassidy, Pundit Arena.