This looked kinda promising on paper.
A home side sitting at the summit of Conference B of the Guinness PRO14 facing off against its closest challengers – and local rivals to boot. Two sides meeting in front of a sellout crowd on a night that ultimately presented us with perfect conditions for a game of rugby.
The reality was far from fulfilling.
Both coaches had an eye on crucial European contests against French opposition next week and thus opted to field reserve selections. Leinster’s strength in depth being what it is, it was no surprise that the hosts should claim such a large and straightforward win in their own back yard.
It’ll do the young lads no harm.
Ciaran Frawley got a rare and welcome start at ten, Conor O’Brien displayed his many talents with a man-of-the-match display in the centre and fringe players aplenty bagged a bundle of confidence-inspiring minutes in front of the home faithful. Ulster’s rookies will have learned a bit too.
As an event though? Awful.
Leinster’s lead now in Conference B stands at 19 points and it is Benetton rather than Ulster who sit tucked in behind them on the ladder now thanks to this result and the Italians’ defeat of Glasgow Warriors in Treviso.
The number of missing Ireland internationals here stretched well into the twenties.
Eighteen of those who stepped up in their absence had played U20s rugby for Ireland at some point in the last three seasons but it was Sean Cronin, 32 years young, who lit up the opening quarter of a first-half that would end with Leinster’s try bonus point already secured.
The Ireland hooker had two tries to his credit inside 13 minutes, the first coming half-a-dozen minutes in when he dotted down on the back of a seemingly never-ending number of patient phases by Leo Cullen’s scratch team.
The second was similar: Leinster eking out territory bit by bit with a succession of well-executed phases until Cronin decided enough was enough, injected a shot of pace and fire into proceedings and thundered over with two men on his back.
Ulster responded from what was their first real venture into the Leinster 22 when their own hooker, Adam McBurney, went over on the back of a maul but any hopes that it would foster a more competitive occasion were short-lived.
Leinster gathered from the kick-off and were over for their third try seconds later after O’Brien waltzed through a succession of what can only be described as pathetic ‘tackles’. Frawley’s missed conversion left it 19-7.
All that and with the second quarter yet to start.
It took until first-half injury-time for Leinster to strike again. Andrew Porter did the honours on that occasion, a fourth try and bonus point secured before the sides had even made for the sheds. The only expectation from then on was that the chasm on the scoreboard would yawn further.
Ulster had already missed 22 tackles by then and the 26-7 scoreline wasn’t all that far removed from the 29-0 that pertained at half-time when the northern province was hit for 64 points in round five by a much stronger Munster selection than the reserves they faced here.
Leinster clicked only intermittently after the break.
Frawley had a try disallowed after Scott Penny’s surging run through the Ulster centre ended with a spilled ball and knock-on with half an hour to go but Jamison Gibson-Park finally squeezed over off the back of a scrum with 63 minutes played to claim a fifth five-pointer.
An injury-time penalty try provided a fittingly underwhelming climax.
Normal service will resume for both provinces in seven day’s time when Leinster and Toulouse battle it out in a game at the RDS that will likely decide top spot and home field quarter-final advantage in Pool One of the Champions Cup.
Ulster will welcome high-flying Racing 92 to the Kingspan Stadium later that day in the hope that they can eat into the five-point gap that separates them from the summit of Pool 4. What happened in Dublin tonight will have done nothing to colour either landscape.
Leinster: R Kearney; A Byrne, C O’Brien, N Reid, B Daly; C Frawley, J Gibson-Park; J McGrath, S Cronin, A Porter; R Molony, M Kearney; J Murphy, S Penny, M Deegan. Replacements: J Tracy for Cronin, E Byrne for McGrath and M Bent for Porter (all 51); H O’Sullivan for Gibson-Park, C Doris for Murphy and J O’Brien for Kearney (all 63); O Dowling for Molony (69).
Ulster: M Lowry; R Lyttle, D Cave, J Hume, A Kernohan; J McPhillips, D Shanahan; K McCall, A McBurney, W Herbst; M Dalton, A O’Connor; G Jones, S Reidy, N Timoney. Replacements: P Nelson for Lowry (HIA, 18); J Andrew for McBurney (blood, 33-HT and 51); T O’Toole for Herbst (HT); A Warwick for McCall and B Houston for Kernohan (both 49); C Ross for Reidy (58); C Montgomery for O’Connor (68); J Stewart for Shanahan (72).
Referee: A Brace (IRFU).