In a remarkable Irish PRO12 derby Ulster on Friday night secured their place in successive Championship play-offs when, against the odds, they managed to secure a losing bonus point in a 22-20 defeat.
With Tom Court red carded after 16 minutes few would have given Ulster odds on defeating the current league champions and PRO12 leaders, or even getting the required single point from the game they needed to secure at least fourth place in the standings.
But in a pulsating affair which also saw Leinster’s Rob Kearney and Rhys Ruddock sin-binned within two minutes of each other, Ulster produced an unbelievable performance again, just as they had done against Saracens when down to 14 men, four weeks ago in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
On that occasion, the first game played at the newly developed Ravenhill, Ulster came up short.
But on the occasion of the official opening of the new stadium, Ulster got their rewards with Paddy Jackson kicking 20 points to keep his side within Leinster’s range.
Leinster may have departed with the league victory, but in a strange way it was Ulster who had more to party about at the end.
Ian Madigan kicked two penalties in the opening 10 minutes to give the visitors a 6-0 lead, missing a third on 14 minutes.
Ulster were rocked when they had Tom Court red carded on 16 minutes for a dangerous tackle on Devin Toner.
But it was Ulster who rallied – as they had done when finding themselves in an almost similar position in the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens four weeks previously – and when outhalf Paddy Jackson charged down a Madigan clearance he gathered the loose ball and went in at the corner – but he was high tackled by Rob Kearney as he went over and that saw the Leinster fullback sent to the sin-bin.
Jackson’s touchline conversion shaved the upright, but the outhalf was then taken out in the air by Rhys Ruddock minutes later and that saw the Leinster blindside off to the bin, giving Ulster the numerical advantage 14-13.
Jackson put Ulster ahead with a penalty but Madigan took Leinster in at the break leading 9-8.
Madigan missed two from three penalty attempts early in the second half which left it 12-11 as the hour mark approached.
Shane Jennings crossed for a try however and Madigan converted to put Leinster 19-11 ahead and take Ulster out of losing bonus point range.
Jackson slotted over a penalty, but that was cancelled out by replacement Leinster outhalf, Jimmy Gopperth, and it looked as if the Blues were going to rain down on the Ulster opening night of their new stadium.
But the 14 Ulster players rallied and two penalties from Jackson ensure the losing bonus point and a place in the play-offs.
ULSTER: Ricky Andrew; Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne, Luke Marshall, Tommy Bowe; Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Tom Court, Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Johann Muller (capt), Iain Henderson, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Niall Annett, Callum Black (Williams 16), Adam Macklin (Warwick 70), Dan Tuohy (Muller 62), Sean Doyle, Michael Heaney, James McKinney, Darren Cave (L Marshall 56), N Williams (Wilson 66).
Leinster: Rob Kearney, Zane Kirchner, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney, Ian Madigan, Isaac Boss; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore, Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock, Shane jennings, Jamie Heaslip (capt).
Replacemnts: Richardt Strauss, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen, Jordi Murphy, Luke McGrath, Jimmy Goppereth, Brendan Macken