While head coach McLaughlin opted to rest Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Dan Tuohy ahead of next weekend's semi-final clash at the Aviva Stadium, the strength of his team selection still mirrored the importance of tonight's fixture. First-choice players Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Craig Gilroy, Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg all returned to the starting XV after sitting it out against Connacht, while Declan Fitzpatrick made a welcome return at tighthead after a long lay-out through injury.
Leinster showed their caliber as early as the third minute, Fergus McFadden forcing his way through a succession of tackles and into the Ulster '22' before knocking on. The same player was heavily involved in the next attack moments later, in which good recycling close to the line allowed flanker Kevin McLaughlin in to ground a seventh-minute try. Jonathan Sexton's conversion extended the visitors' early lead to Ulster 0 Leinster 7.
Ulster's first chance to strike back came in the 13th minute with an offensive scrum deep in opposition territory, but the organisation and commitment displayed by the Leinster defence to repel Ulster advances and efficiently quash any danger was impressive. Then, poor throwing from Richardt Strauss at a Leinster line-out in the 22nd minute on half-way led to an infringement and the award of a 10-metre line penalty, but the kick from Pienaar, so reliable from distance in recent weeks, inexplicably span wide.
More substantial rewards were reaped straight from the restart, however, as a good catch from Trimble set in motion the wheels of a well-worked collective attack, which culminated in Muller picking up from Lewis Stevenson and touching down by the right-hand corner flag despite the attentions of several desperate Leinster tacklers. Pienaar's conversion attempt veered wide once more, but thanks to the skipper's first-ever try in the white and red, his team right back in the running at Ulster 8 Leinster 10.
Their task was made that little bit harder by Sexton's penalty on the half-hour, either side of which Chris Henry and then Wallace were lost to injury and illness, but good pressing earned them a penalty of their own on 37 minutes, which Pienaar was grateful to put away from inside the 10-metre line. The half finished with the visitors camped in the Ulster half, and the hosts were unfortunate to give away a last-minute penalty right in front of the posts, which Sexton dispatched with ease.
Half-Time Score Ulster 8 Leinster 13
A smart training-ground dummy from the scrum minutes after the restart by McFadden looked pretty and gained Leinster a few yards, but Ulster's defence was as steadfast as the visitors' had been in the first half and possession was soon turned over. The Ulstermen attacked in numbers, with powerful thrusts from Fitzpatrick and Henry's replacement Robbie Diack in particular, but again, Leinster's star-studded defence neutralised the threat before real damage could be done.
Despite Wannenburg being next to hobble off on 50 minutes - a premature ending to his Ravenhill swansong, which was fittingly acknowledged by the home crowd - Ulster kept their concentration and Pienaar only failed to pull three points back by a matter of mere centimetres three minutes later, with a penalty attempt from just inside half-way.
As the hour mark struck there was a palpable sense of anticipation around Ravenhill, but good progress thanks to excellent ball-carrying from the Ulster forwards was eventually undone by a knock-on. The Leinstermen then took their turn to attack, and another Ulster fumble, this time deep within their own '22', put the hosts under severe pressure. Leinster worked well from the scrum, but their advances were contained and Sexton opted for the drop-goal when the opportunity presented itself in front of the posts, making it Ulster 8 Leinster 16.
Ulster enjoyed their fair share of possession as the match neared its close, but never really threatened to breach the Leinster lines again, and a final onslaught in the dying seconds was blighted by another knock-on on the opposition '22'. A disappointing final home fixture of the 2011 - 2012 campaign, then, but with the club's biggest match since 1999 only a week away, Brian McLaughlin's men will spend little time licking their wounds.
All thoughts must now turn to next Saturday's encounter in Dublin, where victory would see Ulster through to their first European final in 13 years - with a possible rematch with tonight's opponents on the cards should Leinster overcome Clermont Auvergne.
Full-Time Score Ulster 8 Leinster 16
(15 - 9) S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, N Brady, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller (c), L Stevenson; C Henry, W Faloon, P Wannenburg
Replacements (16 - 23) A Kyriacou, P McAllister, A Macklin, N McComb, R Diack, I Porter, I Humphreys, A D'Arcy
(15 - 9) R Kearney; D Kearney, B O'Driscoll, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan
(1 - 8) C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (c), B Thorn; Kevin McLaughlin, D Ryan, S O'Brien
Replacements (16 - 23) S Cronin, H Van Der Merwe, N White, D Toner, S Jennings, I Boss, I Madigan, F Carr
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Leinster Rugby Score Card|