Leinster came through on Saturday to hold out and beat neighbours Ulster but will breathe a collective sigh after a nail biting finale.
It finished up 21-18 but for most of the match the champions trailed their rivals. Ulster opened the game much the brighter and scored an early try, Kieran Treadwell touching down when Garry Ringrose’s attempted clearance was charged down.
Ulster had put huge pressure on the Leinster defence, pinning them deep in their twenty-two. I’m not sure what Ringrose was thinking of when he cut back behind his own players to try to unlock some space. Perhaps he was in two minds about whether to kick or run the ball out.
He probably saw Best and Henderson as possible marks to run around but decided against it and kicked. His head was down as he released the ball so he didn’t see how quickly the Ulster forwards had closed the distance. A soft try to give away so early in the game.
Leinster struck back with a determined move that was finished by Ross Byrne. The stand in number ten had a superb game, battling calf cramp late in the game. Unfortunately he could not convert his try, so Leinster remained behind 5-7.
The teams traded penalties for the remainder of the first half, with neither team managing to dominate fully. Cooney took his better than Byrne who missed another reasonably easy kick.
Ulster were the ones playing with excitement and cut through Leinster lines on a number occasions, but the statistics show that the home side edged possession and territory.
Jacob Stockdale will remember this game for the ball he dropped while in the process of scoring early in the second half. He made a terrible mistake in not making sure of the grounding and will regret it for a long time. It just slipped through his fingers. He was under some pressure but it does not excuse the error.
Bar that one mistake he was in awesome form. He seemed to breeze by the Leinster players, forcing them to miss their tackles. One of the best players on the field yesterday, and made Jordan Larmour look weak defensively.
Leinster did make some clean line breaks, however, and Jack Conan did brilliantly to burst through the Ulster pillars, getting clean away before offloading to Adam Byrne for a score not long after the Stockdale incident. With the conversion, it put Leinster up for the first time at 18-13, but it felt like this was a game on a knife edge.
As the substitutes came on the pace of the game intensified. Both sides were now fully engaged and realised that the season could be over, at least as far as Europe was concerned, if they did not get the upper hand.
Ulster were patient in the build up to their second try, the forwards getting some momentum going before it was thrown wide to the backs. Marshall had a lot of work to do to get over the line, burying himself low under Ross Byrne’s challenge to score.
Inexplicably, Cooney, who had kicked with precision, missed the conversion, his easiest kick of the night. It was eighteen points apiece and was going to be a wonderful final fifteen minutes. Perhaps the pressure of the situation got to him; let off for Leinster but as it turned out it would not have changed the result.
Leinster started to show their European credentials and made if difficult for Ulster. The line out and maul had not hit and miss all night, but they used it to good effect to force a penalty deep in the Ulster half.
There was a moment of discussion between Ross Byrne and captain Ruddock. The out half was struggling with cramp and it was obvious he was in some discomfort. He said he wanted the shot, a difficult angle given he had already missed two on the night.
He slotted it perfectly between the posts and hobbled back to half way, barely able to put any pressure on his left leg, the standing leg for kicking. It was a brave decision that paid off.
Ulster sent everything they had against us in that final ten minutes, but to no avail. They will have to wait until next year to try again.
With Toulouse winning against Racing 92 in Paris, it means that Leinster will face their pool rivals again in the semi final. It will be a home game played at the Aviva thanks to out higher seeding in the pool stages.
Toulouse are one of the only French teams that play almost as well on the road as they do at home. We may regret not beating them twice (we came close to doing so), effectively knocking them out at the pool stages, but at least we can sit back and enjoy a home match.
In the other semi final Munster face the arguably tougher game against Saracens. It will be played on UK soil. You’d have to say that if any team can beat Saracens on their own turf in this competition it is probably going to be Munster. Could we be looking at the second all Ireland final?
So despite a disappointing Six Nations campaign, we have the maximum number of provinces allowed by the fixtures in the semi-final and the potential for an all Ireland lockout. Can’t beat that.