NO MATTER THE challenges presented to them, or a growing perception that the world is against them, Ulster are a team who simply will not lie down.
An early red card was once again the defining factor in a game in the new Ravenhill, Tom Court dismissed after just 16 minutes.
On a day when Ulster legends of past and present were the guests of honour along the sidelines for the new stadium’s grand opening it was an unexpected name, referee Luke Pearce, on everybody’s lips.
Pearce has controlled professional games in England, but his first taste of the Pro12 could not have given him a tougher 40 minutes to wade through.
Ian Madigan had kicked Leinster into a six-point lead when Court and Rob Herring combined to tackle Devin Toner and the prop needlessly lifted and then twisted the second row.
Though Court did not intent to drive his former international teammate into the turf, Toner’s sheer size makes him an impossible body to control and after a TMO review there seemed little option but to issue the red card to the loosehead.
Ulster’s one-man disadvantage, though, was the next thing to be flipped on its head. Paddy Jackson embarrassed his opposite number Ian Madigan with a charge-down and Rob Kearney took the out-half out by the neck as he touched down in the corner. Yellow card.
Leinster were down to 13 before the break, another TMO call as Rhys Ruddock felled Jackson as he leaped to claim a high ball. The crowd were baying for red, Pearce kept a cool head and brought out the yellow card again.
Despite being roughed up, Jackson’s performance was an assured one throughout and he would trade penalties with Madigan to leave the hosts trailing 8 – 9 at half time.
The second half held no such drama, few halves will, but Ulster’s 14 men once again found themselves digging deep in order to keep their defence intact.
They were undone only once, but it was fitting that it should come from a restart. Time and again, Leinster out-fought the white jerseys from either 22 metre or halfway restarts.
Having escaped an earlier scare and brought the deficit back to a single point, the decisive score of the game came after Tommy Bowe knocked on and Leinster clinically capitalised on the turnover ball, Brian O’Driscoll weaving into a gap before offloading brilliantly to Shane Jennings who cruised behind the posts.
At 11 – 19 Matt O’Connor must have felt the contest was over, but rather than make an impact, his replacements struggled to close the game out and Ulster’s own impact sub Darren Cave ignited an attack leading to a penalty. Typical Ulster, refusing to know when they were beaten.
Jimmy Gopperth would respond with a long range attempt, but it was Jackson and Ulster now controlling momentum. Two more penalties from the young number 10 ensured Ulster would take a hard-earned losing bonus point. And that small consolation prize is all they needed to cement their place in the Pro12 semi-finals.
The win for Leinster moves them to within tasting distance of sealing top seed for the playoffs, and in all likelihood they will be pitted against Ulster once more in the semi-finals.
Neutrals should be licking their lips at the prospect, Ulster fans must just be hoping they can keep 15 men on the field.
Penalties: Jackson (5)
Penalties: Gopperth, Madigan (4).
Ulster: Ricky Andrew, Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne, Luke Marshall, Tommy Bowe, Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Tom Court, Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Johann Muller (Captain), Iain Henderson, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Niall Annett, Callum Black, Adam Macklin, Dan Tuohy, Sean Doyle, Michael Heaney, James McKinney, Darren Cave.
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Zane Kirchner, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney; Ian Madigan; Isaac Boss: Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore: Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy; Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip. (Captain).
Replacements: Richardt Strauss, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen, Jordi Murphy, Luke McGrath, Jimmy Gopperth, Brendan Macken.