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Massive shock in Dublin as Bulls dethrone URC champions Leinster

Defending champions Leinster were dramatically knocked out of the United Rugby Championship courtesy of a brilliant Bulls ambush in Dublin on Friday night. The Irish province, who were hunting down a fifth successive title in the PRO14 tournament that was rebranded the URC this year, came unstuck in a fashion frustratingly similar to how they were eclipsed 13 days earlier in the Heineken Champions Cup final by La Rochelle.

On that occasion, the French side did their utmost to disrupt and slow down the famed Leinster attack by annoying them repeatedly at the breakdown and that approach provided the vigilant Bulls with the blueprint to go and reprise that heist, adding their own South Africa flavor to that plan and taking a deserved win.

Just a single point separated the teams at the finish, the Bulls winning 27-26 in front of a crowd of 11,565, but that scoreline flattered Leinster as it was only a converted try with the clock in the red that cut the margin from eight points to one.

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It was an outcome in sharp contrast to what had unfolded down the road 37 weeks ago on the opening weekend of the season. Back then, Jake White’s South Africans fell 17 points behind inside 13 Aviva Stadium minutes and played like they hadn’t got off the plane. Here, they were the complete opposite and with Johan Grobbelaar leading the charge, they lived up to White’s promise that they were in town to cause an upset.

Leinster initially started by picking up where they left off against Glasgow in last weekend’s twelve-try quarter-final route. Some initial attacks came to nought, but a sweetly weighted kick in behind the cover from around halfway by Garry Ringrose sparked panic in the Bulls defense and it resulted in Dan Sheehan pouncing on the bobbling ball to score the ninth-minute try converted by Ross Byrne .

That looked like the cue for the hosts to accelerate and put this contest to bed early but they were rudely mistaken. They might have won an early scrum penalty but the sequence of the refereeing decisions soon turned in favor of the more muscular South Africans at the breakdown.

Out-half Chris Smith landed a penalty kick before a sloppy error materialised, Canan Moodie failing to ground the ball properly over the try line with a veritable walk-in opportunity. That, though, was only a temporary Leinster reprieve as the Bulls had been playing with a penalty advantage and when play restarted with a quick tap on the five-metre line, Grobbelaar dived over for a 19th-minute try.

Smith converted and he was also accurate off the tee five minutes later when another Leinster breakdown infringement conceded territory and when the Bulls launched off the resulting lineout in the 22, their sweep ended under the posts with Marcell Coetzee scoring off Zak Burger’s pass.

The match had now been rapidly turned on its head, the Bulls leading 17-7 with Leinster looking increasingly unsettled, but that gap was reduced eight minutes later by a bit of magic from Robbie Henshaw, his team’s best player on the night.

First, he flummoxed the defense with a surprise out-the-back pass 30 meters out and then, after play had advanced to near the try line, he rejoined the attack to carry over forcibly off a ruck for a try that Byrne converted to leave just three points between the teams.

The half ended in a torrential downpour and the second period started in sunshine, a wildness that encapsulated the traditional Irish summer and also the rugby that was to initially follow. It was Caelan Doris who was credited with a penalty win on his line with the Bulls looking for a third try and the battle zone then moved down the other end where similarly no score materialized with Leinster knocking on twice.

Eventually, something gave. Josh van der Flier was pinged for a high tackle and with the Bulls trusting their assured lineout maul off the penalty to touch, they delivered a 53rd-minute penalty try off a rousing drive and a yellow card was also shown to James Ryan.

That was the prompt for the benched Johnny Sexton to try and ride to the rescue. Jimmy O’Brien tested the nerves with a clearance kick that was soon charged down by Harold Vorster and would likely have been a try had the Bulls midfielder not slipped as he gave chase for the loose ball.

Leinster next went to touch with a 63rd-minute penalty rather than go for the posts while ten points down. Sub Ross Molony was unable to take the catch, and that malaise was quickly repeated with another penalty to the corner where Doris was the culprit at the lineout the second time around.

They persisted, though, and a move concocted from set-piece ball on halfway – with another Henshaw pass the defense breaker as Jordan Larmour cruised through a gap – ended with Rory O’Loughlin getting in at the corner for the unconverted 70th-minute try .

However, Sexton’s miss off the tee was a crucial twist. It meant that five points – not three – was the margin and a shoddy error by Molony soon permitted sub Morne Steyn to make it a two-score game again with a penalty four minutes from time. That was that, Leinster’s 80-minute plus converted try from Cian Healy a mere consolation on a night where the Bulls brilliantly upset the odds.

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