John Cooney seals thrilling Ulster win over Leinster to secure URC playoff spot

Scrumhalf’s 79th-minute penalty was roared over by a capacity crowd in Belfast in final home game of the season

URC: Ulster 23 Leinster 21

The loudest, most tremulous, deep-throated, guttural roar of the season at the Kingspan Stadium was reserved for the full-time whistle at the climactic end of Ulster’s last home game of the season.

John Cooney’s 79th-minute penalty having edged them in front, the capacity crowd chanted down the clock in tandem with their team running it down before Nathan Doak kicked the ball dead. Cue that mother of all roars.

At the end of a rip-roaring, pulsating derby which ebbed, flowed and throbbed all night long, this 23-21 win completed a rare Ulster double over Leinster as it backed up their 22-21 win at the RDS in January.

Richie Murphy’s rejuvenated side thus ensured a place in the URC playoffs and, in all probability, automatic qualification for next season’s Champions Cup. One more point will seal the latter, but as a buoyant home crowd headed into the night, Ulster are essentially in bonus-point territory when they head to Thomond Park in a fortnight.


Victory for Munster will ensure them of first place and top seeding in the playoffs after Leinster’s fifth defeat of the URC season, compared to one last season, left them ahead of Glasgow in third place on points difference.

While a home quarter-final at the Aviva still seems probable, the odds of even a semi-final, and a final, at Croke Park have receded. They will surely reflect ruefully on their fateful decision to turn down a straightforward penalty at goal in the 68th minute for an unrewarded lineout maul. It afforded Ulster a lifeline and left them within that decisive strike from Cooney of a famous win.

Of some consolation for Leinster, Hugo Keenan looked razor sharp on his return as both he, James Ryan and the other likely players in next week’s Champions Cup final appeared to come through unscathed. That said, Charlie Ngatai and the unlucky Tommy O’Brien were both forced off, ensuring the impressive scrumhalf Cormac Foley had to play more than half the game on the wing.

Results elsewhere over the weekend had gone favourably enough for Ulster, save for the Lions beating Glasgow, as the other three sides in close proximity in the table all lost, namely Edinburgh, Benetton and Connacht.

This meant that a win of any hue would ensure them of a top eight finish and a URC quarter-final, as well as probable qualification for next season’s Champions Cup. A victory with a bonus point would secure the latter.

With a capacity crowd under diamond blue skies in temperatures of 15 degrees at kick-off, the food and beer trucks did a big pre-match trade. Revved up by the sight of Leinster in their final home game of the season, Ulster exploded out of the blocks, with Will Addison and Ethan McIlroy the creative forces and Michael Lowry a repeated danger on the right wing.

Lowry twice had vociferous claims for a try over-ruled after recourse to video replays, both times correctly. First off, as Rob Russell dallied until Andrea Piardi signalled Ulster’s knock-on advantage had elapsed, Lowry charged down the clearance and dived on to the loose ball when it crossed the line. But Russell won the touchdown.

After Addison then backed up his clean break with an accurate kick pass, Lowry gathered, was tackled by Keenan before picking up and diving over. But Piardi correctly spotted that the Ulster winger was still on its knees when reclaiming possession.

Lowry looked set to score soon after from McIlroy’s long floated pass but was stopped by the O’Briens, Tommy and Jimmy. But a penalty to the corner ensued and Rob Herring was awarded the try on review after hitting Alan O’Connor with his throw despite a suspicion of a knock-on.

Cooney made it 7-0 and it was certainly deserved.

Leinster had created little but struck stealthily when, out of nothing, Will Connors blocked a kick by Billy Burns, regathered and fed Ngatai, who also eluded Burns’s despairing tackle from behind to score.

Ulster looked set to restore their lead when McIlroy’s deft hands beat the Leinster blitz to release Addison. He had David McCann and Lowry on his outside, but Keenan shepherded him inside, tackled him and held him up over the line.

Leinster lost Ngatai to an apparent shoulder injury and would subsequently lose Tommy O’Brien to a possible hamstring strain, forcing Foley out to the wing.

But they stuck again after Byrne, Jack Conan and Ryan carried hard off a scrum on halfway before Keenan took a late, hard line to gather Byrne’s inside pass. Though knocked off balance by Cooney’s tackle, in perhaps the night’s most skilful moment, Keenan had the presence of mind to swivel and pass inside for Foley to gather one-hand and sprint away to score.

So, instead of leading by two or three scores, Ulster somehow trailed 14-7. Even so, penalties either side of the break after Connors and Ryan were pinged at the breakdown in turn, trimmed that margin to a point.

But with the Leinster scrum turning the screw, their phased game began to find some rhythm, before they reverted to route one with Max Deegan, Conan, Ryan and Rónan Kelleher all putting their shoulders to the wheel, before Michael Ala’alatoa was driven over by Cian Healy and Deegan.

A foreboding hush crept over the ground as Leinster went for the jugular with another phased attack whereupon, out of nothing, Jacob Stockdale read Byrne’s skip pass with three Leinster men on his outside to intercept just outside the Ulster 22 and complete a 75-metre try untouched, Cooney converting.

Again Leinster cranked up the heat, but turned down a pretty certain three points by opting for the corner and gambling on a fourth try. In another pivotal moment, the maul was held up and when John McKee peeled off and charged for the line rather than pass to Luke McGrath and Tom Stewart latched over the ball to win a relieving penalty.

Cue some frantic exchanges in the middle third of the pitch, Stuart McCloskey offloading three times in one sustained Ulster attack in an impenetrable blue wall, before Thomas Clarkson was pinged for not rolling away when perhaps pinned by Stewart.

After the customary chanting of his name, up stepped Cooney to take on the penalty about two metres inside the Leinster half. You knew by the way he turned away that he had bisected the posts, and the roar which followed as the ball cleared the bar with plenty to spare, confirmed as much.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 14 mins: Herring try, Cooney con 7-0; 23: Ngatai try, Byrne con 7-7; 27: Foley try, Byrne con 7-14; 33: Cooney pen 10-14; (half-time 10-14); 44: Cooney pen 13-14; 53: Ala’alatoa try, Byrne con 13-21; 58: Stockdale try, Cooney con 20-21; 79: Cooney pen 23-21.

ULSTER: Ethan McIlroy, Mike Lowry, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Alan O’Connor (capt), Cormac Izuchukwu, David McCann, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: Tom Stewart for Herring (45 mins); Andy Warwick for O’Sullivan, Stewart Moore for McIlroy (both 55); Matty Rea for Izuchukwu (62); Scott Wilson for O’Toole (65); Harry Sheridan for Treadwell (69); Nathan Doak for Burns, Jude Postlethwaite for McCloskey (both 74).

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Tommy O’Brien, Jimmy O’Brien, Charlie Ngatai, Rob Russell; Harry Byrne, Cormac Foley; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa; James Ryan (capt), Brian Deeny; Max Deegan, Will Connors, Jack Conan

Replacements: Ben Brownlee for Ngatai (26 mins); Luke McGrath for T O’Brien (37); Ross Molony for Deeny (54); John McKee for Kelleher, Michael Milne for Healy, Thomas Clarkson for Ala’alatoa (all 61); Scott Penny for Connors (66), Sam Prendergast for Byrne (74).

Referee: Andrea Piardi (FIR).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times