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Ulster's broken record in Dublin

Beating Blues on home soil looks a tall order

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Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale following the 2019 Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final loss to Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile

Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale following the 2019 Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final loss to Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale following the 2019 Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final loss to Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile

The best team always wins; the rest is just gossip.

For every day except just one this century, Ulster have talked about the prospect of winning in Dublin and for every day that they have conspired to lose they have discovered another way of talking about how it will be different the next time.

Except it never has been. Except for just that one time.

And even that one time, though, seemed so weighed with significance that, rather than create a new version of a depressingly one-sided history, it merely confirmed it.

And still they cling, more to hope than belief, but even these tangibles haven't helped them get over the line.

They have sent full-strength sides to Dublin and lost in pulsating encounters but they have also sent strong squads to Dublin and lost to second strings and, sometimes, when player management has required them to dilute their numbers heading south, defeat has already been acknowledged.

If you need a flavour of just how much it might mean for Ulster to win a significant match - hell, any match - on Leinster soil, one only has to recall how much it meant to them when the last did so.

Like locating the proverbial needle in the haystack, though, the result stands out like a sore thumb.

March 30, 2013: Leinster 18, Ulster 22.

And even then, the northerners almost clutched defeat from victory's clenched teeth, referee George Clancy bizarrely referring a potentially winning Leinster try to the TMO after he had blown the final whistle.

Seán Cronin had bundled over the line but Ulster captain Johann Muller had clearly heard Clancy telling him, "Ball held up, end of the game." Except it wasn't.

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe was similarly befuddled. "We're still not sure if we won the game," he mused confusedly. "We might get a call tonight to say they've gone through the video…"

The action replay saved them but the bigger picture didn't, even if that slice of March madness secured a rare home-and-away double against Ireland's pre-eminent province en route to topping the regular standings (as they had also done in their European conference).

For, in Joe Schmidt's last campaign in charge of Leinster, they would earn sweet revenge against their neighbours, the ultimate wounding irony of that campaign meaning the 2013 league decider had to be switched to the RDS as Ravenhill was being refurbished.

Leinster would embellish their status as a trophy machine, too, winning the secondary European competition, the Challenge Cup, Ulster falling short of another trophy hunt at the quarter-final stage.

And so a truly abysmal record in Dublin was re-affirmed, one that has seen Ulster win just once since the turn of the century in both regulation and knockout games in the capital.

That March mugging in 2013 represented their first win in Dublin since 1999 and their only success in the RDS, Leinster's 21st century home following their permanent switch from Donnybrook.

Nothing suggests that, with Leinster in the midst of the hottest winning streak in league history, an upset is on the cards, even if one identifies that Ulster, in April 2019, were the last side to inflict a defeat upon them in this competition.

Ulster's record in knockout competitions is miserable and heightened by the disparity when Leinster have blocked their ambition; either side of their 2012 European final defeat to Leinster, the southerners thwarted them in three Pro12 knockout clashes.

Superior

They were superior again in the 2016 semi-final and a thrilling 2019 quarter-final tie in Dublin, which many observers reckoned was their best opportunity of ending their depressing sequence of reverses, in their first European knockout game in five seasons.

Ross Byrne's late penalty for an under-par Leinster, hobbled by Jonathan Sexton's absence, sealed a victory marked by Jacob Stockdale's botched touchdown effort, symbolic of the many ways Ulster have conspired to find ways to lose this fixture.

In the last seven years, between domestic and European action, they have played seven knockout matches and won only one, against Connacht in last season's Pro14 quarter-final.

And so after Ian Madigan's heroics in Edinburgh last weekend teed up just a second win in nine semi-finals, and a first final appearance in seven years, Dan McFarland's men seek to change the broken record.

It is one that projects perennial underachievement; after all, they have to reach further into history than any of their provincial rivals to recall their last significant trophy success in 2006.

You may have heard of the winning coach - Mark McCall.

The retirement of Rory Best, whose international success contrasted sharply with his barren provincial run, severed the last remaining link with that squad.

He almost cut ties earlier, when Michael Cheika approached him in 2010, as he revealed last year, but loyalty deterred him even if the argument was persuasive.

"I don't think Leinster and Ulster are going to be neck and neck," Cheika said prophetically.

The sides met at the apex of an upward curve, on neutral territory, in that European final of 2012 but the coruscating nature of that defeat shifted the fortunes of the respective teams thereafter.

Ulster parted company with their popular coach, Brian McLaughlin, and entered another period of freefall, while Leinster streaked away from the only other team aside from Munster who had threatened their domestic hegemony.

"He was right," Best said of Cheika's prophesy in his autobiography, before slightly demurring. For a couple of years we were the best teams in the league by a significant gap. The problem was we kept on losing to them."

A problem that is likely to persist. Everything else is just gossip.


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