PRO14 Champions: Three-peat for Leinster
MATCH REPORT: Leinster secured their third successive Pro14 trophy with a 27-5 win over Ulster on Saturday.
*As it happened: Leinster v Ulster
Tries from James Lowe, Robbie Henshaw and Caelan Doris made all the difference, reinforcing how the collection of silverware at this level is very much a habit.
You either have it or you don’t and with Leinster’s cabinet greedily bulging with ten trophies coming into this latest final since Ulster last lifted a pot 14 years ago, fracturing this concrete-set pattern was always going to be an uphill assignment for a visiting team that had lost its two restart derbies in August and then needed a last-gasp penalty to win a semi at Edinburgh.
It wasn’t the sort of form line that would have weighed on the mind too much of a favourite that hadn’t lost a match 16 months and come the finish there was no upset result, only the sight of Leinster comfortably securing league bragging rights for the sixth time in 13 seasons and rounding off a PRO14 campaign that had begun 50 weeks ago with a win at Benetton.
This latest triumph also clinched an unprecedented title hat-trick, setting them up sweetly to go on and exact revenge next Saturday on Saracens in the Champions Cup quarter-finals following their May 2019 defeat in the Newcastle European final against the Londoners.
Ulster have their own Euro hurdle to clear, a trip to Toulouse, and they will go there knowing that any repeat of the errors they coughed up in Dublin will see them on the receiving end of another largish defeat.
Leinster were by no means immaculate, their first-half error count giving Ulster the sniff that was the slender five-point margin that existed between the teams at the break. But they had all the nous to see this triumph out without any of the drama that had been witnessed in the early exchanges.
After an eerie countdown, the silence of the empty stadium rather unsettling given how the recent two finals packed a combined 93,000 in for showpieces in Glasgow and Dublin, the game’s opening was explosive, Ulster ahead with a smashing try created from spilt Leinster ball on halfway.
It was beautiful counter-attacking, the northerners probing right with a meaty Stuart McCloskey carry before going back the other way, lock Alan O’Connor executing a sweet pop to allow James Hume arc stylishly around Ronan Kelleher and into open country.
When the rearguard did arrive, he casually stepped Lowe and had too much gas for the late intervention of Hugo Keenan, Hume diving for the line with just 230 seconds on the clock.
Leinster, who also began sloppily in the ugly semi win over Munster, continued to make errors before eventually managing to build momentum-changing pressure. Off a penalty advantage at the try line, Jamison Gibson-Park fired a powerful pass that eluded Robert Lyttle to get Lowe in at the corner for the score neatly converted by Byrne for a two-point lead.
That riposte didn’t fix Leinster. Take the play that happened after Rob Herring went for a 21st minute HIA. Their own lineout was lost and then they were unconvincing in the air after Ulster sent up a bomb. Doris defused the threat, though, at the breakdown and a sequence of three quick penalties in a row ended with Byrne on target from in front of the posts.
Porter was next to do a Doris, foraging combatively at the breakdown and winning a pressure-relieving penalty after Ulster had kicked to the corner and tried to wrangle an opening from close range. A pass from Billy Burns that wasn’t firm enough for Hume to grasp was their next major setback in the 22 and they even went on to concede a penalty at the restart scrum, misfortunes that left them trailing 10-5 at the break.
That gap increased to eight points four minutes after the restart, Byrne applying the punishment off the tee after Sean Reidy had clattered Garry Ringrose off the ball. And it swiftly got worse, Burns feeling the heat of suffocating Leinster line speed epitomised all night by the energy of the excellent Josh van der Flier.
Burns tossed an ill-advised pass into the mitts of Henshaw on halfway, cheaply giving him an uninterrupted run to the line, and Byrne added the extras for 20-5.
Ulster’s response was to unload a bench top-heavy with former Leinster players in the hope of conjuring an even greater escape than a week previous at Murrayfield, but that cavalry got them nowhere as Leinster responded in kind, the likes of the benched Johnny Sexton introduced to calmly see out the deserved 22-point win capped by a try from Doris eight minutes from time.
Tries: Lowe, Henshaw, Doris
Cons: Byrne 2, Sexton
Pens: Byrne 2
Leinster: 15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Hugo Keenan, 13 Garry Ringrose (captain), 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Caelan Doris, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Rónan Kelleher, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Scott Fardy, 20 Will Connors, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Johnny Sexton, 23 Rory O’Loughlin.
Ulster: 15 Michael Lowry, 14 Rob Lyttle, 13 James Hume, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Billy Burns, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Matthew Rea, 5 Iain Henderson (captain), 4 Alan O’Connor, 3 Tom O’Toole, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Eric O’Sullivan.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Marty Moore, 19 Sam Carter, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 John Cooney, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Nick Timoney.
Referee: Andrew Brace
Assistant referees: Frank Murphy, George Clancy
TMO: Brian MacNeice
Source: Rugbypass & @Pro14Official