Kearney pounces to get Leinster off hook
IF those Leinster fans who braved the cold to come to the RDS last night felt a sense of deja vu, it was understandable.
An Irish side was frustrated and physically dominated by a brutish Italian team but ultimately got out of jail. Sound familiar?
Leinster were heavily tipped and fully expected to beat Aironi in last night's Magners League clash, but the Italians didn't just ignore the script, they ripped it up and came perilously close to getting their first ever league win. The parallels with last Saturday's international were there for all to see.
The visitors ran out of steam in the finale as Dave Kearney made the game safe with a 78th-minute try that keeps Leinster's impressive recent form going.
But Joe Schmidt's young charges will need to improve massively when they head to Wales to face the Cardiff Blues next weekend, as the Welsh side will undoubtedly finish some of the chances that Aironi passed up.
Ultimately, though, Leinster are up to second ahead of the weekend's action and survived another week in which they were deprived of their front-liners. For the Italians, there was the consolation of a fifth bonus point as they returned to Viadana.
Kevin McLaughlin got some valuable game time, while Devin Toner was industrious with the ball in hand, and Schmidt will be happy that such an inexperienced side got themselves out of a hole.
Things looked bleak at half-time as Leinster went in 10-3 down. It could have been worse but for a superb covering tackle from Niall Morris which denied open-side Jaco Erasmus as he looked to be going in for a try.
The Blackrock back had come on as a replacement for Brendan Macken, whose debut lasted just 14 minutes before he limped off. At that stage the score was 3-3, after Tito Tebaldi and Isa Nacewa had exchanged penalties.
Then former Munster No 8 Nick Williams broke off the back of a scrum and ploughed through Ian Madigan and Kearney to score a try he will have enjoyed. Tebaldi converted, but it was the two kickable penalties he missed that will haunt the scrum-half as Leinster clawed their way back into the game.
The hosts came out with a more coherent game plan after the break and it paid off just six minutes into the new half. Nacewa had edged them closer with a penalty, before Morris showed his pace.
The full-back's opportunities have been limited, but he appeared on the shoulder of Richardt Strauss, who had carried well, and took the hooker's popped pass before scorching past South African speedster Danwel Demas to score. Nacewa added the extras, but Aironi weren't giving up as full-back Paolo Buso dropped a goal from long range to level.
As Leinster's most experienced back, Nacewa's cool under pressure was evident and he edged his side ahead once more with a calmly taken penalty, before Buso missed another opportunity to square it again after Andrew Conway petulantly threw the ball away.
The nerves at the RDS were still jangling as Aironi went for their win. But Leinster remained calm and, to the relief of their fans and coach, sealed the deal late on.
Isaac Boss, who had been brought on with Shane Jennings to steady the ship, broke up the left and deftly offloaded to Kearney, who continued his try-scoring form with the Wolfhounds to cross the line again.
Buso pulled back a penalty, but the Italians ran out of time and Leinster marched into second.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; A Conway, B Macken (N Morris 14), E O'Malley, D Kearney; I Madigan (I McKinley 70), P O'Donohoe (I Boss 48); H van der Merwe (J McGrath 79), R Strauss (J Harris-Wright 79), C Newland (S Shawe 67); K McLaughlin, D Toner; R Ruddock, D Ryan, S Keogh (S Jennings 48).
AIRONI -- P Buso; K Robertson, G Pizarro (Pratichetti 70), H San Martin, D Demas; J Marshall, T Tebaldi (P Travagli 68); Alberto De Marchi (Andrea De Marchi 64), R Santamaria (L Ferraro 62), F Staibano (L Redolfino 68); M Bortolami, J Furno (GF Biagi 68); N Cattina, J Erasmus (A Benatti 68), N Williams.
Ref -- N Owens (WRU).