Ulster put a major dent in Leinster's playoff ambitions, all but ending their chances of retaining their title with a 26-10 win in Belfast.
In-form Ulster took another step towards the Pro12 play-offs as they took the points in a clinical and efficient dismantling of a war-weary Leinster team spent from their exertions in the south of France last week.
The hosts were thoroughly relentless as they suffocated their countrymen with a powerful demonstration of territorial rugby.
Last year’s champions were not so much out played as out muscled as Ulster’s forwards smashed into them with venom. Particularly outstanding in this regard was Iain Henderson, who capped a Man of the Match performance with a try.
Special mention must also go to half-backs Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson who controlled the game superbly.
Leinster raced ahead with an early try from centre Ben Te’o, but that was soon cancelled out by Henderson’s effort. The hosts retained an iron grip on the contest thereafter, with Pienaar landing four penalties before the win was finally sealed by Craig Gilroy’s late try.
It was Leinster who started more vigorously, with Jimmy Gopperth making a jinking break early on that caught the Ulster defence napping. And this pressure yielded an immediate return on four minutes when the fly-half stroked over a well-struck penalty to give his side a deserved 3-0 lead.
The hosts were clearly caught out by the sheer intensity of the Leinster opening, and it got worse for the Ravenhill men on seven minutes when Te’o strolled through a porous Ulster defence to touch down under the posts. Gopperth converted to increase the advantage to 10-0.
But the hosts regained their composure well and re-established field position in the Leinster half, forcing a penalty on 11 minutes when the Blues conceded a penalty for not rolling away from a tackle on Louis Ludik, but Pienaar missed the long range kick. But their disappointment was short lived as the game belatedly loosened up.
From the next play, the hosts set themselves up in the Leinster 22, and Pienaar spotted a gap outside Sean O’Brien that allowed fellow international Henderson to power through and score. Pienaar converted the try to make it 10-7. Ulster’s recovery was further strengthened on 17 minutes when Pienaar added straightforward penalty to level proceedings at 10-10.
The first quarter was fairly breathless, with both sides competing ferociously in every contact. Leinster’s game plan wasn’t helped when O’Brien was dispatched to the sin-bin for a careless tip tackle on Henderson. The home crowd bellowed for more, but the decision seemed the correct call on reflection.
The contest then became quite attritional, as a determined Ulster continued to assert pressure on their southern counterparts. Pienaar had an excellent chance to inch his side into the lead on 29 minutes, but his effort drifted wide of the posts to leave the score deadlocked.
Leinster remained stranded in Ulster territory towards the end of the first period thanks to Pienaar’s pin-point box kicks; only gaining respite from a couple of incisive Luke Fitzgerald breaks.
For all Ulster’s endeavour, though, they needed something to show for their territorial dominance and talisman Pienaar provided it on 38 minutes with a well-struck penalty to attain a 13-10 lead. By the end of an absorbing half of rugby then, Ulster were marginally on top but both sides were contributing plenty to a lively contest.
The second half began with Ulster continuing the territorial bombardment – their polished half-backs keeping the defending champions pinned back in their own half. But a barnstorming break by O’Brien forced the hosts to concede on 46 minutes and Leinster skipper Heaslip elected to go for the corner. It was a promising (if rare) incursion into the Ulster 22, but Devin Toner failed to secure the ball at the ensuing lineout.
Like two boxers going toe-to-toe in a championship fight, the game remained taut and error-strewn but was utterly compelling nonetheless. It was nip and tuck at this stage, and Gilroy thought he had grounded the ball for a second Ulster try on 58 minutes, but the TMO correctly ruled the effort out due to the winger’s feet being bundled into touch.
The impetus was now firmly with Ulster, and Pienaar augmented the lead to six points on 64 minutes after Rob Kearney cynically killed the ball with the hosts looking certain to score.
The Leinster full-back was duly sent to the bin for his indiscretion. And the Ulster fullback added another three pointer two minutes later when he nailed a mammoth penalty to give his side a 19-10 cushion.
Leinster's chances were finally dashed on 72 minutes when Gilroy burst through a gap in the fatigued defence to touch down.
Leinster battered away furiously in the last ten minutes in a vain attempt to secure a consolation try, but the Ulster rear guard was simply magnificent; closing out the match with aplomb. Another deflating loss then for a tired Leinster side. For Ulster, the tantalising dream of a Ravenhill final just got more real.
Tries: Henderson, Gilroy
Pens: Pienaar 4
Yellow Cards: Warwick
Yellow Cards: O'Brien, Kearney
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Darren Cave, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Dan Tuohy, 3 Wiahahn Herbst, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Clive Ross, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Stuart McCloskey.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Zane Kirchner, 13 Ben Te'o, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Dominic Ryan, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Ben Marshall, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Darragh Fanning.
Referee: Johnny Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan (Ireland), Olly Hodges (Ireland)
TMO: Seamus Flannery (Ireland)