FOUR LEAGUE FINALS in four years for Leinster, three with Tommy Bowe counted among the opposition’s playing staff.
The Ospreys twice, Munster and now Ulster.
Defeat at this competition’s final hurdle in three previous years has been the one fly in the ointment for Joe Schmidt in his time at Leinster.
Now, at long last, the jinx is over after today’s 18-24 win over Ulster at the RDS.
Just like last year’s final, Leinster had their home venue bathed in terrific sunshine. But this time there were more than just a smattering of visiting fans. Having beaten Leinster twice already this season, the Ulstermen and women travelled with more than mere hope.
Leinster showed all the hunger of a side who had had a whiff of this title three times in three years. Jonathan Sexton began his final game for the province by kicking two penalties to touch and Ulster’s pack were caught cold as Shane Jennings profited with a third minute try.
By the time Ulster’s penalty toll had doubled three minutes later, they were 10 points down.
The designated home side did warm to the task and looked to have Leinster on the rack twice before they eventually got on the scoresheet with a 24th minute penalty.
By then however, they had failed to reap from the momentum of two consecutive scrum penalties in the left-hand corner and after Bowe and Jackson combined to make a break through the middle, Robbie Diack contrived to be held up after opting to cut inside Sexton rather than ground the ball at his feet.
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Leinster’s attacking threat was limited to the bookends of the first-half. Ulster dominated the opening 40-minute period, but just could not find the clinical finish and went in trailing 6-16 at the break.
Under Mark Anscombe, however, belief is on the up in the northern province. At the stage they wilted in the Heineken Cup last season, they roared back today.
The players, for the most part, kept cool while their supporters were screaming blue murder at referee John Lacey. And even with Schmidt’s men seemingly out of sight at 6-19 (and a man) to the good after Diack’s yellow card, they kept their hand on the pump and Jackson forced Isa Nacewa into a ‘horse-collar’ of a high tackle.
“Isa, he’s obviously getting a little bit older,” joked Joe Schmidt in a post-match interview with RTE,”he decided to just play 70 minutes today.”
Pienaar rattled off nine points with Nacewa cooling off. But every time Ulster got close, Leinster dug deep and pulled away.
Sexton showed the benefit of ’heads up’ rugby espoused by his coach and broke down the blindside. Two minutes later, with Nacewa back on the field, he was juicing every last inch out of a touch-finding penalty to give his side another five-metre scrum and from there Leinster would stretch the white wall to breaking point with Heaslip tumbling onto the line.
“I was delighted with our defence.” Schmidt added. “We didn’t really do a lot of attack work this week. We really said lets not give them anything over our whitewash.”
They didn’t and they managed to punish Ulster for their profligacy. Yet still Ulster came battling back. The gap was six points again with 10 minutes on the clock and the blue hordes were surely afraid that their recurring nightmare was back.
With five minutes to go, Ulster made it clear they would not leave Dublin wondering what might have been. Pienaar passed up a certain three points and they went all out for seven. The blue wall would not crumble on its own 22 and only a half-break from Cave came close.
“The players were really in the zone.” Schmidt said, embracing the cliche. “They worked really hard for each other. Defence is often about attitude and I couldn’t fault the attitude.”
Another in a long list of penalties went against Ulster and Iain Henderson to allow Leinster rumble back to neutral territory. But the latest in a long list of Pro12 finals went to Leinster on their home patch.