With just a 10-5 lead at half-time, this Guinness PRO14 final was nicely balanced but the scales were tipped heavily towards Leinster within six minutes of the second half as the men in blue moved through the gears, Ross Byrne with an excellent long-range penalty and then a Robbie Henshaw intercept try, converted by his fly-half.
Suddenly Ulster found themselves 20-5 down and facing a mountain to climb, Leinster happy to let them try and trust their rock-solid defence to soak up the pressure to see them to a 25th straight win of 2019-20.
If Leinster’s game-changing start to the second half was an object lesson in ruthlessness, Ulster will be kicking themselves for their lack of killer instinct. They were able to take the game to Leinster in the first half but failed to execute at the critical moments and convert territory into points, particularly given Leinster were playing far from their best rugby.
Leo Cullen’s side do not often give opportunities to opponents such as they afforded Ulster and it will hurt that they were unable to capitalise.
If Will Connors was wondering how much more he had to do to hold onto the Leinster number seven jersey, starting openside Josh van der Flier’s performance will have provided an explanation. Connors’ prodigious hunger for contact and the chop tackle had been a standout in the semi-final win over Munster but having got the nod from Leo Cullen to start the title decider, van der Flier proved equally ferocious and then some in a relentless Leinster performance.
Andrew Brace once again stuck to instructions from on high and refereed the breakdown to the letter of the law but Leinster managed to keep their penalty count in single figures for the first time since the restart and the officials did not impact on the flow of the game.
Leinster 9 Ulster 16
With European quarter-finals coming thick and fast on the tail of this PRO14 final, both coaches will have been relieved to have emerged seemingly unscathed from such a keen contest.
The PRO14 2019-20 campaign finally comes to its conclusion, 352 days after Ulster hosted Ospreys on a Friday night in Belfast. There will be considerably less time before the 2020-21 season kicks off, with Round One scheduled for October 3, just 21 days from now.
Both Leinster and Ulster will still be hoping there is life left in the current slog, though, with Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals next weekend, and a final in their sights on October 17.
J Larmour; H Keenan, G Ringrose – captain (R O’Loughlin, 68), R Henshaw, J Lowe; R Byrne (J Sexton, 59), J Gibson-Park (L McGrath, 59); C Healy (E Byrne, 52), R Kelleher (J Tracy, 59), A Porter (M Bent, 63); D Toner, J Ryan (S Fardy, 63); C Doris, J van der Flier (W Connors, 72), J Conan.
M Lowry; R Lyttle, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns (I Madigan, 54), A Mathewson (J Cooney, 46); E O’Sullivan (J McGrath, 46), R Herring (J Andrew, 22-32 – HIA), T O’Toole (M Moore, 55); A O’Connor, I Henderson – captain (S Carter, 46); M Rea (J Murphy, 55), S Reidy, M Coetzee (N Timoney, 46).
Andrew Brace (IRFU)