A strong start helped Ulster win a competitive Bank of Ireland pre-season friendly at Tallaght Stadium as they defeated their provincial rivals Leinster by three points (10-7).
PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY: Saturday, August 30
LEINSTER 7 ULSTER 10, Tallaght Stadium
Scorers: Leinster: Try: Bryan Byrne; Con: Ian Madigan
Ulster: Try: Jared Payne; Con: Ian Humphreys; Pen: Ian Humphreys
This was Leinster's final warm-up encounter before the start of their GUINNESS PRO12 campaign away to Glasgow Warriors next Saturday.
In a similar vein to their meeting with Northampton Saints last weekend, Matt O'Connor opted for a blend of youth and experience, with recently-appointed vice-captain Sean O'Brien leading the side from number 8.
With interim head coach Les Kiss in charge, Ulster welcomed back a number of frontline players, including the fit-again Stuart Olding and recent Ireland cap Robbie Diack, ahead of their league opener away to the Scarlets.
Whereas this time last year they were entertaining Northampton at Donnybrook, the latest Bank of Ireland showdown for Leinster took place in the ground that is primarily occupied by Shamrock Rovers Football Club.
Though it was never likely to replicate the intensity of a crunch PRO12 or European outing, any interprovincial clash always offers a certain level of intrigue.
It was the Ulstermen who enjoyed the more productive start to the proceedings and although full-back Louis Ludik fell just short of the try-line after receiving a neat offload from Jared Payne, the latter was on hand to squeeze through and score in the right corner with less than two minutes on the clock.
Returning out-half Ian Humphreys, who previously featured for the Ireland Wolfhounds against Argentina Jaguares at the same venue, brilliantly split the posts with his touchline conversion as Ulster laid down an early marker.
Following their struggles in the opening period of the Northampton tie, Leinster were eager to settle down and find a controlled rhythm. A strong 10th minute break from deep by Jimmy Gopperth opened up space for Darragh Fanning and O'Brien to make significant inroads, but Ulster eventually forced a turnover.
Gopperth was then presented with a penalty opportunity on the 15-minute mark, but his strike from just beyond the 10-metre line drifted marginally past the left hand post.
Michael Allen and Craig Gilroy later combined to halt Fergus McFadden's burst towards the line, but despite coming under some sustained pressure from the Leinster pack, Ulster increased their advantage courtesy of Humphreys' 31st-minute penalty - the former London Irish player made no mistake off his trusty left boot from an awkward angle.
When he executed an inch perfect cross-field delivery in Allen's direction three minutes before the interval, a second Ulster try looked on the cards. Poor handling let down the Belfast native on this occasion though, and as a result Leinster's deficit remained at 10-0 up to half-time.
Ulster did suffer a setback towards the end of the first half when centre Olding (pictured above) - playing his first game for the province in ten months - was unfortunately forced off through injury, and thanks to the introduction of several fresh legs on the resumption, Leinster added an extra spark to their play.
A prolonged spell inside the Ulster 22 put them in an ideal position to finally break the deadlock, and after the ball was worked effectively out of an opposition scrum, young hooker Bryan Byrne(pictured below) was on hand to touch down in powerful fashion on the left.
The score put a major spring in Leinster's step and with replacement out-half Ian Madigan expertly adding the extras, some serious questions were now being asked of Ulster.
The loss of Olding's replacement, former Ireland Under-20 international Rory Scholes, further weakened the hand of the Kiss-coached visitors, but because of the necessity for both teams to experiment ahead of their return to competitive action, it was unsurprising that try-scoring opportunities were at a premium inside the final quarter.
Outstanding approach work by Ulster scrum half Paul Marshall(pictured below) almost led to a Gilroy try 16 minutes from time, but the retreating Leinster defence were quick to close out the danger.
As the final whistle approached, the strong half-back pairing of Madigan and Isaac Boss did their best to try and manufacture a match-winning score, but the Ulstermen, who had hooker John Andrew yellow carded, held firm to give themselves a winning lead-in to the PRO12.
LEINSTER: Zane Kirchner; Fergus McFadden, Brendan Macken, Steve Crosbie, Darragh Fanning; Jimmy Gopperth, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Bryan Byrne, Mike Ross, Kevin McLaughlin, Mike McCarthy, Jack Conan, Shane Jennings, Sean O'Brien (capt).
Replacements used: Dan Leavy for O'Brien (18-22 mins; 49), Cian Kelleher for Kirchner, Michael McGrath for Macken, Sam Coghlan Murray for Fanning, Ian Madigan for Gopperth, Isaac Boss for McGrath, Michael Bent for Healy, Tom Denton for Conan (all half-time), Ben Marshall for McCarthy (46), Tadhg Furlong for Ross (52), Tom Daly for McFadden, Tyrone Moran for B Byrne, Josh van der Flier for Jennings (all 59); Gavin Thornbury for Leavy (64). Not used: Sean McCarthy, Ed Byrne, Nick McCarthy, Cathal Marsh, Billy Dardis.
ULSTER: Louis Ludik; Michael Allen, Jared Payne, Stuart Olding, Craig Gilroy; Ian Humphreys, Paul Marshall; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Wiehahn Herbst, Dan Tuohy, Franco van der Merwe, Robbie Diack, Sean Reidy, Roger Wilson (capt).
Replacements used: Rory Scholes for Allen (18-26 mins), Declan Fitzpatrick for Herbst (36), Scholes for Olding (38), Ricky Andrew for Ludik, Ruaidhri Murphy for Warwick, Nick Williams for Wilson (all half-time), Sean O'Hagan for Humphreys (49), Jacob Stockdale for Scholes, Alan O'Connor for van der Merwe (both 52), Clive Ross for Reidy (55), John Andrew for Herring, Neil McComb for Tuohy (both 64), Michael Heaney for Marshall, Callum Black for Murphy, Bronson Ross for Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson for O'Connor (all 67), Ludik for Payne (70), Mike McComish for Diack, Conor Joyce for Ross (both 71), Kyle McCall for Williams (74); Not used: David Shanahan, Ross Adair.
It will be an all-Irish affair at the GUINNESS PRO12 final on Saturday as, after 22 rounds of tough competition, the two teams that finished top of the table after the regular season - Leinster and Connacht - will face each other at the iconic BT Murrayfield.