15. Jared Payne
Showing tremendous consistency this season in providing a cutting edge for Ulster.
The backs in front of him created precious little for him, but each time the home side threatened at Ravenhill, he was at the heart of it. Offloaded well for to provide Luke Marshall’s late try.
14. Andrew Conway
The future is bright for Leinster. They are down to the bare bones of their squad, but can still field more than their fair share of gems. Conway has proven himself to be far too good for the international under 20 stage and, in his first truly big game on Saturday, he never once looked out of place. A late injury may deny him a Heineken Cup run this Saturday. That would be a shame.
13. Brian O’Driscoll
A try reminiscent of his iconic score against Australia in 2003 was the cherry on top of a typically omnipresent display of defence and playmaking. His departure in the second half let down the draw-bridge to allow Munster apply pressure on the Leinster try-line.
12. Fergus McFadden
Should no longer be considered an understudy to Gordon D’Arcy at club or international level. McFadden is growing with stature with every big game appearance. Got through a mountain of work at the breakdown and blasted through Ronan O’Gara as the opening for his midfield partner’s score.
11. Simon Zebo
Bar Casey Laulala, Rob Penney has a back-line full of wingers, and Zebo is undoubtedly the form man. No longer the wispish sprinter who lit up the AIL for Cork Con, Zebo (even with his ankle strapped up) is now an all action wing. This season he appears more willing to step into midfield looking for gaps and he has the physique to withstand contact from most players and get his offload away.
The direct match-up between he and Andrew Conway will hopefully be one we see much more of in the coming decade.
10. Jonathan Sexton
If there was any remaining doubt over who should start at 10 for Ireland in the last 18 months then it is dead and buried now. Once Sexton settled, so too was the result in the game’s middle 40 minutes.
9. Eoin Reddan
Showed the wealth of his experience in the second half, serving Sexton on a silver platter and locking the game down. Crucially, the Limerick man made a blind-side snipe off the back of a late scrum which bought Leinster 50 metres and assured his former province would not get within seven.
8. Nick Williams
Ulster are the only side in Europe not to have lost a top-class fixture this season and Williams has played no small part in that.
The big man left Ravenhill early clutching ice to his ribs, but only after bagging another man-of-the-match performance and a try. The concern now is that injury will set the trundling number eight back in fitness terms. His physique appeared much more streamlined, his game, more under control on Friday than on the opening night of the season.
7. Peter O’Mahony
He played almost the full 80 minutes at number eight, but it’s impossible to leave him out of this XV. Not only did he score Munster’s opening try, he tirelessly carried the fight against the tide.
Jordi Murphy. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
6. Jordi Murphy
Jonathan Sexton spoke last week about the need for his young team-mates to step up to the plate. Murphy began the day on the bench, but was called-upon after just 10 minutes when the injury curse (which has previously haunted Munster) claimed Kevin McLaughlin. Murphy slotted in seamlessly and played a vital role in the breakdown in the period Leinster put the foot down. He Carried effectively and ensured a tough night for Sean Dougall and Paddy Butler.
5. Donnacha Ryan
It wasn’t a night for second rows, but Ryan is a reformed ‘loosie’ (as Rob Penney might call it). Stood tall in an otherwise back-peddling pack. Another bristling display in the around the park which provided the grunt to propel the red shirts forward in the final quarter.
4. Johann Muller
There was precious little ‘loose’ for Ulster. Their tight five put an early squeeze on Connacht and never let go. The norther province never looked in danger of losing on Friday night – and only twice were in danger of conceding points – that was all down to their tight five marshaled, inch-by-inch, by the South African.
3. John Afoa
Every time the eight-man set piece was set, the white pack gleefully proceeded forward. So powerful was the All Black opposite Connacht’s Brett Wilkinson, the scrum too often tempted Ulster into persisting with it when 10,000 had paid their hard earned sterling in the hope of watching Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble cut loose.
2. Richardt Strauss
Man of the match in the Aviva, Strauss performed his party piece: a passable impression of a cannon ball. The soon-to-be Irish international’s refusal to accept a decent tackle ensured blue shirts consistently crossed the gain line. On top of all that, he showed the softest of finger-tip finishes to open the scoring under the posts in the fourth minute.
1. Heinke van der Merwe
Leinster’s South African front-rowers ensured that the absence of Cian Healy was not felt too sharply. The hooker played his bustling ball carrying role in the loose and van der Merwe scrummaged excellently against BJ Botha for 70 minutes. The remaining 10 had some mitigating circumstances – Mike Ross departed the scene and Wian du Preez entered on the opposite side.
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