John Cooney’s final say completes notable double for Ulster over Leinster

Richie Murphy’s side seal their place in the top eight and the playoffs as Leinster welcome back James Ryan and Hugh Keenan to competitive action ahead of Champions Cup final

URC: Ulster 23 Leinster 21

If Richie Murphy and his Ulster side could have scripted their seasonal farewell to the Kingspan Stadium this couldn’t have panned out much better.

On a gorgeous evening in Belfast under a clear blue sky, the gates were opened half an hour early to accommodate the 18,000-plus capacity crowd, the food and beer stalls did a roaring trade, and a rip-roaring derby against Leinster was decided by John Cooney’s unerring 78th-minute penalty from almost halfway to send the home crowd and departing players into the night in high spirits.

In backing up their 22-21 win at the RDS on New Year’s Day to emulate their double over the league’s standard bearers two seasons ago, Ulster also sealed their place in the top eight and the playoffs. Come kick-off in their final game in a fortnight against Munster in Thomond Park, Ulster may well have secured qualification for next season’s Champions Cup as well.

Only a Sharks win in next Friday’s Challenge Cup final against Gloucester combined with either Benetton or Edinburgh taking a five-point haul from their clash in Treviso and the Lions doing likewise away to the Stormers next Saturday week could push Ulster to eighth and outside the Champions Cup threshold. Even if that unlikely sequence of results were to occur, Ulster would seal a top seven place with a bonus point in Limerick.


As things stand, Ulster would face a quarter-final against Leinster in the Aviva, although there is likely to be some further shuffling in positions, and even Murphy smiled wryly when asked about completing a treble.

“That might be a little much but whoever we get, we get,” he said, confirming his side had no injuries.

His team had exploded out of the blocks, with Ethan McIlroy and Will Addison providing creativity and penetration, and Mike Lowry was denied a try by fractions on three occasions.

Eventually they scored through Rob Herring’s maul try, only for Will Connors to charge down a Billy Burns kick and set up Charlie Ngatai before a superb inside line and swivelling pass by the returning Hugo Keenan enabled the impressive Cormac Foley to put Leinster 14-7 ahead.

When Michael Ala’alatoa scored their third try from a trademark power play the visitors looked well set, but Jacob Stockdale then picked off Harry Byrne’s pass for an intercept try.

Critically, Ulster kept the scoreboard ticking with penalties by Cooney either side of the break. Leinster opted for the corner with a kickable penalty in the 68th minute and when John McKee peeled off, the ruck was not resourced and Tom Stewart won a huge turnover. After the customary chants of his name, cue Cooney’s match-winning penalty and an even more thunderous roar when Nathan Doak kicked the ball dead with the clock in the red.

“This is my third home game here and each week the atmosphere has built,” said Murphy. “That was incredible tonight. Special night for the likes of Billy [Burns], who has been here a long time but is moving on, and Will Addison and a number of others as well. Since I’ve come in, Billy and Will have been massive parts of this group and a massive help in driving our messages. Two experienced rugby players, great at their game and held in high regard within the changing room.”

While Murphy will have a more vested interest in next Friday’s final, he will keenly watch the Champions Cup final the next day.

“It’ll be a cracking game. Let’s hope Leinster can go and do it. I think they’re in a great place, they’re an incredible team, and even though, I don’t know how many players they were missing tonight, no matter who they show up with they’re hard to beat. It’s very unusual for a team to beat them twice in one year, so that’s something that Ulster have.”

Leinster’s third URC away defeat in a row is not ideal preparation for next weekend’s rendezvous with Toulouse in north London. But both Keenan and James Ryan came through 80 minutes along with other likely members of next Saturday’s match-day squad in making timely returns.

By comparison, Ugo Mola seemingly rested his entire ‘23′ for their 28-24 win away to relegation-threatened Montpellier. “They had a great win away resting quite a lot of guys,” said Cullen when putting his own selection in context.

“I think everyone understands that, don’t they?” he added. Well, seemingly not everyone. “We’ve some guys here that obviously will be featuring next week.

“There’s lots of things that go into it. It’s not exact but in knock-out games you need to do everything you can to set up your team as best you can to give you the best chance of winning the game.”

Yet, while Munster moved from third into pole position over the weekend, Leinster are unlikely to top the URC table for the first time in five seasons. Pending their own RDS farewell against Connacht, a home quarter-final at the Aviva is assured but most likely any semi-final and final will be now be away from Croke Park after five defeats in the regular season, compared to one last season.

“I just think the standard is stronger. There’s no great secret to it,” said Cullen, citing Glasgow’s loss to the Lions, à la Leinster last month.

“That’s what you’re up against and that’s across the board. It’s a very competitive league. A World Cup and all the rest, there’s a lot going on. But we didn’t play well enough in some of those games.”

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