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An 82nd-minute penalty from replacement fly-half David Humphreys completed a dramatic comeback for Ulster at Ravenhill on Friday night as having looked out of the game at 13-0 down, they fought back to deny Leinster the spoils in a hard-fought Interprovincial clash.
The 36-year-old Humphreys came off the bench to change the complexion of this game and rescue a draw for Ulster just when a fourth successive league defeat looked on the cards for the league’s bottom side.
Ulster have not lost four league games in a row since October 2004 but that looked like being the case as Leinster’s energetic pack, which included debutant prop Ollie Le Roux, took the game to their opponents from the kick-off.
Bernard Jackman and Jamie Heaslip, who was later named man of the match, both carried forward with menace, particularly in the first half.
The visitors’ slick lineout, which showed up the hosts’ problems in that area, offered a constant source of possession and fly-half Jonathan Sexton controlled the direction of game early on with some excellent line-kicking.
Evidently off form, Ulster had to dig deep to keep Leinster from crossing their whitewash but they achieved as much in a first half which ended with Michael Cheika’s men only 6-0 in front.
Captained by the returning Brian O’Driscoll, Leinster failed to transfer their dominance onto the scoreboard.
After early misses by both himself and Paddy Wallace, Sexton opened his side’s account in the 18th-minute with an easy penalty kick after Ulster prop Bryan Young had come in at the side of a ruck.
Newcomer Scott Dewey had a couple of bulldozing runs in midfield for Ulster but the hosts struggled for any sort of continuity, although a quick left wing surge, initiated by a Kieron Dawson turnover and involving Dewey, Mark McCrea and Andrew Trimble, showed what they were capable of.
Leinster continued to look the team who would break the try deadlock. Returning full-back Girvan Dempsey darted forward up the left flank and a neat kick to the corner from Sexton had Leinster within striking distance.
A few minutes later, a chip through on that same left side from O’Driscoll had Ulster in danger but Tommy Bowe did well to get back and touch down for a drop out, under pressure from Rob Kearney.
An excellent maul foward from the Leinster pack led to Ulster infringing, five minutes before the break, and Sexton mopped up with his second penalty of the night.
Leinster again made the better start to the second half. Their pack got them back in try-scoring range and centre Gordon D’Arcy picked and went off the back of a close-in ruck to burrow over in the right corner despite the best efforts of Isaac Boss.
Sexton’s pinpoint conversion from the right sailed through the uprights and Leinster were 13-0 in front, giving a better reflection of their evening’s work.
But with Ulster coach Mark McCall throwing experienced duo Humphreys and Justin Harrison into the fray, the home side raised their game. Humphreys increased the tempo with some pinpoint touchfinders and he was also key to Ulster’s only try of the night.
That came after 55 minutes when Humphreys made a half break in midfield, Bryn Cunningham came up on his shoulder to take the ball on and a flat pass from the full-back released Andrew Trimble who had the gas to make the line from 20 metres out.
Humphreys added the extras and for the first time, Leinster looked rattled. Possession was coming back on the Ulster side and Humphreys followed a successful 65th-minute penalty kick with an almost trademark drop goal to level the game at 13-13.
Leinster hit back with seven minutes to go when Sexton punished a ruck offence with his third penalty, yet Ulster had enough fight in them to earn themselves a last-gasp chance to draw level in injury-time.
Leinster infringed in midfield and Humphreys coolly accepted the chance to bisect the posts from 40 metres. Taking his tally for the night to 11 points, the former Ireland fly-half grabbed a share of the spoils for his side and more of the same will be required if Ulster are to get back to winning ways.
The kick left Leinster wondering what might have been as for the second successive season, their league trip to Belfast resulted in a draw.