Leinster clinch Pro12 title to hand Joe Schmidt perfect send-off

Those blessed with an immaculate sense of timing make their exit at the perfect moment.

Departing the stage with the fans begging for more and the critics showering fawning admiration.

Joe Schmidt clearly has that knack. He takes his leave as Leinster coach with two trophies in the 2012/13 cabinet, adding to the Heineken Cup triumphs in each of his first two seasons.

Not a bad three-year stint for the New Zealander who now enters the international arena with Ireland.

Ulster, full of hope they might land a first trophy in seven years, again left a showpiece final empty-handed.

They were trailing in the Pro12 final for all but the opening two minutes, and the 24-18 result indicates that Leinster justified their favourites' tag.

This all-Ireland dispute was settled in the rather quaint surroundings of the Royal Dublin Society  grounds in a well-to-do part of the city, commonly known as D4.

Ulster, table-toppers after the 22-fixture regular Pro12 programme, had nominated the venue as, technically speaking, they were the home team.

Ulster fans travelled to the RDS final in big numbers

Ulster fans travelled to the RDS final in big numbers believing their side could clinch the Pro12 title

In future, their revamped Ravenhill HQ will be able to host an occasion such as this. But that is for another day.

The northern fans took it all in good heart, singing "We're supposed to be at home."

The atmosphere was deafening. The provinces may have been restricted to just 9,000 fans each, but the noise seemed amplified way beyond that.

The RDS is an ageing complex, used all year round for all sorts of occasions.

Today, as well as this high-profile rugby match, these grounds were accommodating the Ireland Insurance Institute exams and an art exhibition. Forthcoming attractions include Rod Stewart's 'Live the Life' tour and the annual Dublin Horse Show.

As if to emphasise who was really on home turf, Leinster stars like Jonny Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll were swinging into the parking area in their own cars, just before the arrival of the coach, decked out in red, black and white, carrying Ulster to their date with destiny.

The weather smiled on this season's finale as thousands of Ulster supporters flocked south by train, bus and car in the hope of seeing the men in white lift some silverware for the first time since the 2006 Celtic League success.

They crowded outside the local hostelries, enjoying a pre-match pint in brilliant sunshine as, inside the ground, players were going through their warm-up rituals.

As far as big-time showpiece finals go, Ulster had not prospered since the good old days of 1999 and the European Cup win by the team coached by Harry Williams - before rugby went completely professional and wall-to-wall commercial.

Although they had finished ahead of all-comers in the regular season, and beaten Leinster twice into the bargain, Ulster went in as definite underdogs.

Leinster were determined to give Schmidt a winning send-off.

Despite the European successes in his three years in charge, the domestic prize of the Pro12 had eluded him - until now.

Joe Schmidt's Leinster record

  • 2010/11: Heineken Cup winners, Magners League runners-up
  • 2011/12: Heineken Cup winners, Pro12 runners-up
  • 2012/13: European Challenge Cup winners, Pro12 winners

Indeed, Leinster had lost the last three finals in this competition. The expectancy among the locals was that the sequence was not going to stretch to four.

And so it proved. Schmidt's 99th competitive match with Leinster was to end in the manner of 76 before - victory for the men in blue.

A Shane Jennings, try followed by 11 points from the boot of France-bound fly-half Jonny Sexton, had Leinster 16-6 up by the break.

If Robbie Diack had got the ball down for a try, instead of being held up, it might, just might, have been a different ball game.

But, while Ruan Pienaar's penalties kept Ulster in touch, Leinster scored the game's two tries and ended the match with their adoring Dublin public singing 'come on you boys in blue'.

And so Ulster end the season, one which had promised much early on, without the sought-after silverware.

It had been a season touched by tragedy and the Ulster players badly wanted to end it with a trophy to take back Belfast. They wanted to do it for Nevin Spence, their talented young centre who so tragically died with his father and brother in an awful farming accident back in September.

It wasn't to be, not on this occasion. On a beautiful May evening in Dublin, the RDS witnessed a familiar scene, Leinster lifting a trophy.

Mark Anscombe will be back at Ravenhill for his second season at the Ulster helm.

Meanwhile, a smiling Schmidt takes his bow to answer Ireland's call, with the gratitude of Leinster ringing in his ears.

He is leaving at the top and both sets of fans at the RDS will be united in the wish that Leinster's undoubted loss will prove to be Ireland's gain.