The Leinster Machine keeps on churning out the wins and the titles. The cast may change, what with 53 players used and several of them having moved on since the start of the 2019-20 Pro14 all of 51 weeks ago. But the records will show that there has never been a more dominant team in the history of this competition.
There’s been Leinster, and then there’s been the rest.
The 23 did the 53 proud, and akin to the departing Sean O’Brien lifting this trophy in Glasgow last May, in a nice touch it was the departing Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden who jointly did so this time.
A 17th win out of 17 games eclipsed the 10-game winning run en-route to the inaugural 2001-02 title and also completed a record seventh title and the competition’s first three-in-a-row. Nor is there the remotest sign of them easing up.
Akin to Munster in the semi-final here, Ulster had the temerity to score first in the fifth minute but thereafter didn’t add another point in the last 75 minutes in what was another demonstration of Leinster’s uber-efficient defence as much as anything else.
The difference here was that Ulster at least had a go, coming up with a nicely worked try when spreading the ball wide or looking to offload in traffic, whether through Stuart McCloskey or their forwards, and they asked questions of the Leinster defence. It was just that the Leinster defence invariably had all the answers.
The return of James Ryan and Josh van der Flier possibly injected even more line speed into their defence, which collectively devoured the Ulster attack, and their presence certainly didn’t detract from the voracious work ethic.
Almost never committing more than one or two players to the breakdown, and keeping two men in the backfield, after that early concession Leinster invariably kept 12 or 13 men in an impenetrable blue line.
Van der Flier was chosen as Man of the Match but, as in the semi-final, it could just as easily have been Caelan Doris, who was as strong as an Ox on both sides of the ball, led the defensive effort with a phenomenal 19 tackles, and was a deserving try scorer.
Although this was a significantly more ruthless performance than against Munster, Leinster still weren’t quite at their best and, with Saracens in mind, were again penalised a tad too much for their own liking at the breakdown.
Their lineout also seriously malfunctioned in the first-half and, with Ulster forwards repeatedly trapping Jack Conan after the tackle, once more they were penalised heavily at the breakdown.
Of course, there was no sense of occasion, and certainly nothing like the frenzied packed house for the Champions Cup quarter-final here last March, when the tickets were sold out in an hour and 15,000 Ulster fans descended up Dublin.
But as in that quarter-final Ulster came roaring out of the blocks. Latching eagerly onto a knock-on by Conan, Stuart McCloskey was first to exploit space in the outside midfield channel with a strong carry over the gain line.
From the recycle, Billy Burns fed Alan O’Connor in the middle of a three man pod and Leinster’s defence bought the bluff. The lock pulled the ball back behind him and Tom O’Toole for James Hume to ghost onto the ball, veer outside the despairing Ronan Kelleher and skip away from the covering James Lowe before taking Hugo Keenan’s tackle to score before the four minute mark. It was the talented 22-year-old’s second try in 20 appearances, but Burns missed the difficult conversion.
As with all champion sides though, a recurring feature of Leinster’s games since the resumption is how they respond to conceding a score by invariably scoring themselves. And so it was again.
It didn’t come immediately. Ulster putting in a couple of big defensive sets before Ross Byrne wrapped around Robbie Henshaw and ran a diagonal over the gain line. Henshaw and Doris, with a superb hard line, trucked it up further and after some close-in drives Jamison Gibson-Park used an advantage play to put James Lowe over with a flat, blindside skip pass. Byrne landed a fine conversion for the lead.
Another feature of Leinster’s game is how they’ve been working the ball into the midfield and kicking in behind to invariably find grass. Such a kick by Ringrose and fast line speed forced Burns to concede an attacking throw but Leinster’s lineout misfired.
Doris’s strength in the jackal earned a penalty against John Andrew, temporarily replacing Rob Herring, for not releasing after Conan’s tackle. Then, having twice gone to the front of their lineout, Leinster earned a choice of two penalties, either to tap into touch by the corner flag or take three points from under the sticks, Garry Ringrose instructed Byrne to do the latter.
Whereupon Ryan couldn’t gather in Ronan Kelleher’s throw, and after a nice exchange between McCloskey and Hume, Conan was trapped at a ruck for a second time. Ulster went to the corner, but cue another big Leinster defensive set, culminating in Andrew Porter demonstrating his strength over the ball. It looked easier to shift a wall.
Even so, next it was Doris who couldn’t haul in Kelleher’s throw. That it made four lost lineouts from their first six. It seemed to be a mixture of throwing, the timing of the lift and the catching, but it was puzzling how little Devin Toner was a target.
After Rob Lyttle reclaimed Alby Mathewson’s box kick above Lowe, Conan was trapped on the deck for a third time. Ulster went up the line and again turned down a shot at goal when Cian Healy was pinged for coming in from the side.
Again though, Leinster’s defensive maul held up the drive and even when Ulster kept carrying hard to within two metres of the line, Leinster’s line speed and tackle execution drove Ulster back until Hume slightly fumbled Burns’s low pass.
Leinster had one last throw, and throw of the dice, before the break. A nice strike play brought Lowe up the middle, but the attack ended with Hume ripping the ball from, of all people, Doris.
On the resumption though, Sean Reidy took out Ringrose off the ball and Byrne nailed a 43-metre penalty to make it a two score game. Barely a minute later, Leinster extended their lead to three scores when Henshaw easily picked off a skip pass by Burns intended for their curiously subdued go-to man Marcell Coetzee and ran in under the posts untouched.
Dan McFarland had one last roll of the dice by introducing his bench, featuring six ex-Leinster players, before the hour mark. Meantime Leinster, feeling better about themselves, delved into their reservoir of strike plays, twice bringing Lowe in at first receiver as first Larmour nearly scored in the corner and then Ringrose couldn’t get a try-scoring pass away.
Andrew Brace’s whistle dominated thereafter, continuously penalising the side with possession. Ten minutes from time, when Stockdale was penalised for continuing to crawl on the ground after the tackle and Michael Lowry conceded an extra 10-metres, Ulster’s goose was cooked.
There was an air of inevitability about the next score as Leinster pounded away through one-off runners or close-in carries before Doris powered through the tackles of Jordi Murphy and Ian Madigan to score between the posts and Johnny Sexton, on for a last quarter cameo, tapped over the conversion.
To Leinster the spoils, but with the champions facing Saracens at home and Ulster away to Toulouse in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, they’ll each have to pick it up further next weekend.
Scoring sequence: 4 mins Hume try 0-5; 13 mins Lowe try, Byrne con 7-5; 26 mins Byrne pen 10-5; (half-time 10-5); 45 mins Byrne pen 13-5; 46 mins Henshaw try, Byrne con 20-5; 72 mins Doris try, Sexton con 27-5.
Leinster: Jordan Larmour, Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose (capt), James Lowe, Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: Ed Byrne for Healy (53 mins), James Tracy for Kelleher, Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park, Johnny Sexton for R Byrne (all 60 mins), Michael Bent for Porter, Scott Fardy for Ryan (63 mins), Rory O’Loughin for Ringrose (68 mins), Will Connors for van der Flier (74 mins).
Ulster: Michael Lowry, Rob Lyttle, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, Alby Mathewson; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (capt), Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy, Marcell Coetzee. Replacements: John Andrew for Herring (21- mins), Jack McGrath for O’Sullivan, Sam Carter for Henderson, John Cooney for Mathewson, Nick Timoney for Coetzee (all 47 mins), Ian Madigan for Burns (55 mins), Marty Moore for O’Toole, Jordi Murphy for Rea (both 56 mins).
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)