Two yellow cards and one red were shown as Leinster edged out Ulster 22-20 in a fiery Irish derby at Ravenhill on Friday.
Penalties from Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth, along with a try from Shane Jennings, enabled Leinster to take the spoils in this controversial and often tetchy inter-provincial encounter. Ulster replied with a try from Irish international Paddy Jackson, who also enjoyed a metronomic evening with the boot.
Despite the occasional rancour on display, each side will take something from a game that almost definitely sees them both safely through to the semi-finals. Ulster, in particular, will be delighted with a heroic performance that earned them that essential losing bonus point.
The game got off to a physical start, with both sides looking to lay down an early marker. Leinster went through the phases in the first few minutes, and were intent on keeping the ball in hand. And it was the Blues that opened the scoring on five minutes when Madigan slotted a decent penalty to make it 0-3 to the Dublin side. Ominously for the Ulster pack, the visitors' scrum seemed to have their measure at this stage of the encounter.
And Irish international Madigan augmented Leinster's lead on 11 minutes with another sweetly struck kick. The visitors were now 0-6 to the good. The Blues were utterly dominant at this stage of the game, and were unlucky not to be further ahead when Madigan missed a penalty on 15 minutes. Thus, the home defence was proving much too profligate for its own good.
It was an unwelcome sense of deja vu for the hosts on 16 minutes when Court was red-carded for a dangerous tackle on Irish lock, Devin Toner. From the hosts' perspective, the decision had deflating echoes of the ill-fated Saracens game. Although difficult to tell from initial inspection, it looked like a tough call from my vantage point, but subsequent replays suggested that it was the correct decision. The incident certainly left Ulster another proverbial mountain to climb.
Leinster, already in the ascendancy, were now threatening to run rampant against a depleted Ulster. But the hosts rallied well, and when Jackson charged down a Madigan kick on 24 minutes, he seemed to be racing home to the line to propel Ulster back into the game. His certain try was only impeded by a last-moment intervention from Rob Kearney. The home crowd bellowed vociferously for a penalty, and following consultation with the TMO, the Leinster full-back was duly dispatched to the sin-bin by referee Luke Pearce, who penalised the high challenge. The try stood, therefore, to leave it 6-5 to the Ulstermen as the fly-half missed the difficult conversion.
And flanker Rhys Ruddock followed his teammate to the side-lines on 26 minutes when he earned yellow by obstructing Jackson in the air. It was a clumsy challenge indeed, and indicative of a half that could not be accused of lacking incident. Jackson gave the hosts the lead on 33 minutes when he nailed a penalty to make it 8-6 to the Ravenhill men. But the prodigious Madigan cancelled that effort out two minutes later to restore the Blues' lead.
It was all to play for, therefore, at the beginning of the second half. Madigan had a great chance to increase his team's advantage on 47 minutes, but was off-target with the attempt. But the Dublin native made no mistake on 53 minutes to make it 8-12 to the southern province. But the hosts were not finished, and Jackson reduced the deficit to one point with a 57 minute penalty. No sooner had he scored, however, when Leinster re-established field-position, and put together some quick, sharp phases that culminated with Jennings strolling through a weak Ulster defence to score. Madigan inevitably converted to give his team an 11-19 lead.
Leinster's superior numbers seemed to be telling against their besieged opponents. But Ulster could not be shaken off, and put together some decent phases of their own. One such incursion allowed Jackson to reduce the gap to 14-19, thus putting his team back into losing bonus point territory. But replacement Gopperth increased the lead to eight points once again with a long range effort on 70 minutes.
Jackson responded three minutes later to narrow the gap to five points to leave the score 17-22. And the home fly-half delighted the Ravenhill faithful on 77 minutes when he slotted another kick to send a resilient and brave Ulster into the play-offs, where they will be joined by their countrymen.
By Rory McGimpsey
Pens: Jackson 5
Red card: Court
Pens: Madigan 4, Gopperth
Yellow cards: R. Kearney, Ruddock
Ulster: 15 Ricky Andrew, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Roger Wilson, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Johann Muller (capt), 3 Andrew Warwick, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Dan Tuohy, 20 Sean Doyle, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 James McKinney, 23 Darren Cave.
Leinster 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Zane Kirchner, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Jamie Heaslip (capt), 7 Shane Jennings, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Martin Moore, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Mike Ross, 19 Leo Cullen, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Jimmy Gopperth, 23 Luke Fitzgerald.
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), David Connolly (Ireland)
Television match official: Dermot Moloney (Ireland)