A stunning performance from half-back partnership Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar left Ulster to a priceless 30-6 victory over provincial rivals Leinster on Saturday.
At a packed out Kingspan Stadium, the Northern Province knew that only a win would keep their title winning hopes alive. In the penultimate weekend of the Guinness Pro-12 season, Ulster’s hopes of a semi-final berth hung in the balance.
Early in the game, it was the southern visitors that applied the early pressure but they failed to capitalise, penalised for holding on five metres from Ulster’s line. It was Ulster who then struck first blood with a Jackson penalty, which was shortly followed by a penalty try.
From then on, Leinster were always chasing the game, two penalties before half-time from outside half Jonathan Sexton kept them in the hunt. However, it was ultimately Ulster’s dogged defenced which ensured victory for the men in white.
Sustaining early pressure near their try line at the start of both halves frustrated Sexton and co, and it wasn’t long before Ulster applied their own second half pressure. A sweeping move involving Pienaar, Jackson and Luke Marshall sent fullback Jared Payne over for the try which really killed the game off as a contest.
Fittingly, it was Ulster’s 24-year-old fly half Jackson who had the final say on this occasion. He rounded off a fine individual performance both in defence, attack and from the tee firstly through a thumping tackle on Ian Madigan. Then, moments later, it was Jackson who intercepted a Leinster pass before displaying great speed to race the length of the pitch for the game’s final try.
In front of the on-looking Joe Schmidt, Jackson was clearly the standout number 10 on a field which consisted of the two men, Sexton and Madigan, who in recent times have been the preferred choices of Schmidt for a place in the Ireland squad.
It was a performance that kept Ulster’s season alive. They now go to Wales to play the Ospreys, knowing that a victory there will see them into the Semi Final stage.
In a season of inconsistency from an Ulster side who on paper should be a match for anyone in the Northern Hemisphere, this result suggested how good a side they could really be. With one more week of the regular season remaining, it really is all to play for, for the Ulstermen.