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Leinster 21-18 Ulster: Hosts prove their class with Champions Cup quarter-final win

Sheer agony for Ulster. In the days and weeks to come, they will wonder what might have been? They could and should have been their greatest away victory in Europe since they stormed Thomond Park back in 2012. 

Leinster are a champion outfit and in the end they showed the grit and smarts to get the job done, just about. The unfancied visitors brought them to some dark places last night. 

Leo Cullen’s men finished the game pounding the Ulster line with a 40-phase attack, but this was anything but comfortable.

Leinster progressed after a hard-fought Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster in Dublin

Leinster progressed after a hard-fought Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster in Dublin

Leinster progressed after a hard-fought Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster in Dublin

They needed a 73rd-minute penalty from Ross Byrne – suffering with cramp – to take a three-point lead and it proved enough.

MATCH FACTS 

LEINSTER: J Larmour; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R O’Loughlin (N Reid 41), D Kearney; R Byrne (R Kearney 73), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 57); C Healy (E Byrne 57), S Cronin (J Tracy 57), T Furlong (A Porter 66); S Fardy, J Ryan; R Ruddock (capt), S O’Brien ( D Leavy 51, M Kearney 62), J Conan 

TRIES: R Byrne, A Byrne

CON: R Byrne

PENS: R Byrne (3)

ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, D Cave (L Marshall 62), S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan ( A Warwick 72), R Best (capt) (R Herring 16), M Moore (W Herbst 55); I Henderson, K Treadwell; N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee (S Reidy 51)

TRIES: Treadwell, Marshall

CONS: Cooney

PENS: Cooney (2)

Spare a thought for Jacob Stockdale. The prodigious Ulster wing was inconsolable after the final whistle. He looked to have scored another sensational solo effort at a crucial juncture in the second-half, but a costly knock-on erased the score. Did it prove the difference? It was certainly a factor. 

This Ulster squad won’t want to hear it, but they were superb last night. From John Cooney’s calm leadership to Kieran Treadwell’s relentless workrate, they were inspired. This can be a launchpad for great things, going forward.

This was a proper cup battle, a real derby duel. Ulster’s fervent supporters flocked to the capital in their thousands and they made their voices heard all night. It’s been 20 years since they won this trophy. It’s been seven years since they reached a final. 

After years of turbulence, on and off the pitch, Dan McFarland has steadied the ship this season. They showed some real steel to get to this stage, securing hard-fought wins on the road against the Scarlets and Leicester. They weren’t given much of a chance here, but you get the feeling that suited them just fine.

Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale was inconsolable after his error cost his side a score

Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale was inconsolable after his error cost his side a score

Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale was inconsolable after his error cost his side a score

Ulster were fired up for this. Iain Henderson set the tone with a crunching hit on Sean O’Brien in the opening minute and his teammates piled in after that. His fellow forwards were not far behind during a relentlessly physical first-half effort, particularly the inexhaustible Marcel Coetzee. 

The Springbok backrower endured two years of knee trouble and he is playing like a guy who is making up for lost time this season. When you’re the underdog, you need moments of inspiration. Stuart McCloskey was the first to stick his hand up. The ‘Bangor Bulldozer’ lived up to his name when he used Cian Healy as a speed bump early doors. 

No mean feat that. Led manfully by the Leinser castaways with a point to prove, Ulster swamped the hosts in the opening exchanges. They needed something for all their early efforts. They got a gift from Garry Ringrose. 

Kieran Treadwell pounced to score Ulster's first try and put them ahead against Leinster

Kieran Treadwell pounced to score Ulster's first try and put them ahead against Leinster

Kieran Treadwell pounced to score Ulster’s first try and put them ahead against Leinster

He didn’t get any favours from Ross Byrne’s hospital pass but his indecision led to a chargedown from Henderson and his fellow lock Kieran Treadwell pounced for the opening try. John Cooney smashed over the conversion and it was game on. 7-0, the perfect start.

The inevitable Leinster backlash duly arrived with Ross Byrne muscling his way over the line following 25 punishing phases.

Rory Best – so durable throughout his illustrious career – was the first casualty of this frantic encounter, the Ulster captain leaving the fray after 16 minutes with his ankle heavily strapped.

Ireland captain Rory Best was forced from the action after 16 minutes through injury

Ireland captain Rory Best was forced from the action after 16 minutes through injury

Ireland captain Rory Best was forced from the action after 16 minutes through injury

There were many who were perplexed by Sean Cronin’s ruthless ejection from the Ireland squad mid-Six Nations by Joe Schmidt. Cronin’s career was summed up in microcosm of play. A trademark scything break was then followed up by a miscured lineout throw.

Byrne and Cooney exchanged kicks to make it 13-11 in Ulster’s favour at the break.

Then came Stockdale’s error. In the same corner he scored that memorable try against the All Blacks, he conjured more magic. 

Weaving through three tackles for what seemingly looked like another score for his ever-increasingly highlights reel package. He forget the most basic rule of the game, look after the ball, It was a let-off for Leinster.

They pounced soon after thanks to a rampaging break from Jack Conan, who delivered the killer offload to send Adam Byrne sprinting away. Byrner’s conversion made it 18-13 and the hosts finally had some breathing space.

Leinster flanker Dan leavy had to be taken from the pitch on a stretcher after a knee injury

Leinster flanker Dan leavy had to be taken from the pitch on a stretcher after a knee injury

Leinster flanker Dan leavy had to be taken from the pitch on a stretcher after a knee injury

Most worrying was the sight of Dan Leavy lying in pain clutching his knee. He left the action on a motorised stretcher, another blow for the young flanker.

There was time for more drama as replacement Luke Marshall – back after from 12 months of injury hell – powered through to bring Ulster right back into it. Cooney – usually so nerveless with the boot – hooked the routine conversion to leave the scores locked at 18-18. It would prove costly. Byrne would then step up and nail the match-wining kick.

Leinster march on, but they will not forget this one. 

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