Despite a hugely spirited performance from Ulster, giving a Leinster side, who had brushed all aside en route to the final, plenty to think about, Kieran Campbell and Willie Anderson’s charges just came up short at the final hurdle.
The final scoreline bore little reflection of a very competitive game where Ulster dominated large periods of possession and territory, but were ultimately unable to convert this into points.
A strong start for Ulster with solid defence kept the hosts inside their own half for the first five minutes of the game. The synthetic pitch at Energia Park allowed for some running rugby but it also meant both sides made a number of handling errors, leading to Leinster and Ulster scrums respectively. However, a scrum penalty was awarded to the hosts as Ulster were pinged for engaging early. Leinster opted to kick to touch for a lineout on Ulster’s 5 metre line, but the home side were penalised for impeding in the air and Ulster were able to clear their lines through fly half, Bruce Houston.
After winning the lineout, Ulster quickly moved the ball wide and fullback Ethan McIlroy spotted a gap in the Leinster defence to set up Graham Curtis who dotted the ball down for Ulster. Bruce Houston made good with the conversion.
Leinster and Ulster exchanged penalties from the boot of Rob Russell and Bruce Houston respectively, giving the visitors the lead by 3-10.
Ulster’s excellent recycling of the ball when in possession and quick line speed when not meant that Leinster were unable to find a way through. However, after a number of phases through the forwards, Leinster’s Oisin Dowling eventually punched his way over from short range, with his try converted by Russell.
A penalty opportunity went begging for Russell and Leinster following an Ulster infringement in the lineout. The following restart was collected by the hosts and some enterprising play led to the men in blue playing in Ulster’s 22. The visitors were pinged for offside, and the ensuing lineout and maul from Leinster resulted in a try from the hooker, Dan Sheehan just on the stroke of half time.
Half time score: Leinster A 17 Ulster A 10
Second half possession and territory were largely dominated by the visitors. A Nathan Doak box kick was collected by Leinster who put pressure on Ulster but a cross-field kick from Leinster went into the dead ball area, giving Ulster the 22-metre drop-out. Leinster gathered and won a penalty for an Ulster high tackle. Leinster kicked to touch for a lineout on the Ulster 10m line and won the ball which quickly moved wide. However, a Leinster knock-on gave Ulster some breathing space with a scrum to the visitors just inside their 22. Ulster were awarded a penalty through their strong scrummaging and cleared their lines to halfway.
The home side however obtained possession and moved the ball quickly for full back Russell to spot a gap in the Ulster defence and score to the left of the Ulster posts, with replacement Harry Byrne converting. Leinster 24-10 Ulster.
The next period of play was very stop-start, with reinforcements on both sides being called upon.
A Leinster high tackle led to an Ulster penalty, making their way to the 5 metre line where the visitors spent much of the final quarter of the game, but the Leinster defence was resolute, and their line remained uncrossed despite two yellow cards for Oisin Dowling and later their tighthead, Tom Clarkson for repeated infringements on their try line.
A few minutes later, Ulster’s hooker, Zack McCall made a fantastic break but the hosts were up quickly and able to turn the ball over to relieve the pressure.
In the final minutes of the game, Ulster were penalised for edging offside in the maul and Leinster kicked for a lineout on Ulster’s 22. Leinster’s replacement scrum half, Paddy Patterson took a quick tap penalty and found his way through a gap, scoring for the hosts. Harry Byrne converted.
Luke Pollock looked set to score after breaking through the Leinster line but was brought down just 10 metres from the line by an excellent last-gasp tackle.
A quick-tap penalty from Ulster’s replacement scrum half, Jonny Stewart in a final period of pressure from Ulster didn’t pay off in the end, leaving the final score 31-10 and Leinster A as Celtic Cup champions.
Speaking after the game, Head Coach, Kieran Campbell was encouraged by the team’s efforts:
“I’m very proud of the players. We came with a plan and prepped really well during the week and the boys stuck to it diligently. They put real pressure on Leinster and going into half time we gave away a try and gave Leinster breathing space. Before that, we put a lot of pressure on them and asked questions of them.
“The level of intent they brought them post 24-10 – we were camped in their scoring zone for about 10 minutes and we got them down to two players in the bin, I thought we were going to score and have an opportunity to go after them in the last 15 minutes. Fair play to Leinster, they dug in and we didn’t take our opportunity.”
Campbell was particularly pleased with the strong start Ulster made to the game.
“Leinster have been very impressive through the tournament; they’ve built big leads so in the first 10-20 minutes they’ve had most games finished, so we explained to the boys they need to manage those first 20 minutes to get ourselves a foothold in the game. We did that really well and we scored after two phases. That’s the plan we prepped during the week.
“This tie here a few weeks ago, we didn’t compete and performed poorly which I was disappointed with. We are a young side which has grown really well during the tournament and won five out of seven games.
“We came up a little bit short today but that’s part of their learning and there are going to be a few bumps in their journey as they move towards hopefully getting into our first XV team. They’ll learn from this and will understand this is the level they need to get to and close that gap.”
With regards to the overall Celtic Cup campaign, the Ulster A Head Coach commented on the squad’s progression as a positive:
“They started with the Scarlets when they won in the last seconds and they’ve built on that through the whole tournament and put themselves in a positive learning experience by building good performances and wins. Learning to deal with pressure and the nature of delivering in professional sport week in, week out will hold them in good stead when they get into the senior squad with Dan McFarland hopefully.
Some of our individuals are looking like they can make the step up and be part of Dan’s plan going forward. I’m pretty excited by what we’ve done in the duration of this tournament. We’ve got a little way to go still, but these guys today have done themselves a lot of good and can be proud of their performance.”