Thursday 19 April 2018

Sean O'Brien in doubt for Leinster's Champions Cup semi-final after half time withdrawal at the RDS

Leinster 15 Benetton 17

Sean O'Brien of Leinster against Benetton
Sean O'Brien of Leinster against Benetton
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At the media bunfight to launch this competition at the start of the season there was, as usual, a short queue to interview either of the two Italian entrants.

The presence of the Kings and Cheetahs had thrown a new ingredient to the mix, but even without them it would have been business as usual. So we didn't expect a lot from either. Got that wrong.

Roll around to this run-in to the Pro14 campaign and Benetton were coming to the RDS looking to get a leg up towards the play-off for the seventh Champions Cup slot. Not only did they do just that, putting huge pressure on Ulster in the race for that play-off spot - but it was the first win for any Italian side in Dublin in 18 attempts.

As for Leinster, operating at different level of the executive ladder, they finally had Sean O'Brien back in harness but he went off at half-time with what appeared to be the same shoulder injury that had kept him out since the Scarlets game early last month - having missed the entire Six Nations because of hip issues.

Top of Leinster's agenda here was to get the two points that offered the double attraction of securing a home semi-final in this competition as well as a weekend off in the Champions Cup if their interest in the latter extends to the final.

So while this was mostly their second-string starters, they had a clear and valuable target to aim at. And they came up short. It was also their first defeat at home since losing to Scarlets in the semi-final of this competition last season.

Sebastian Negri, left, and Dean Budd of Benetton Rugby. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Sebastian Negri, left, and Dean Budd of Benetton Rugby. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

By the end of a decent game in perfect conditions, the home fans were trudging towards the exit in unusually low spirits. The knot of Benetton fans at the south end of the ground made enough noise for both. And they did it the hard way.

When scrum-half Tito Tebaldi was yellow-carded for a stamp on Max Deegan - how referee Ben Whitehouse figured it wasn't red was a mystery - the Italians were two points ahead, five metres from the Leinster line and with a penalty advantage.

That should have been Leinster's cue to take full advantage, but they couldn't. When Tebaldi came back, the scores were the same and, fittingly, Benetton would finish the game out in the Leinster 22. No mad stamp collecting this time.

By half-time Leinster were 12-5 ahead and happy enough with that. They had dominated territory but never looked like shaking off a team playing with confidence. So, despite owning the ball from the first whistle and scoring through Richardt Strauss off the back of a maul on seven minutes, Benetton had the patience to hang in there.

Leinster's Adam Byrne is tackled by Benetton's Tommaso Iannone. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Adam Byrne is tackled by Benetton's Tommaso Iannone. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

And within five minutes of that score they had produced something similar themselves: Strauss' opposite number Luca Bigi getting over from a maul. Tommy Allan's failed conversion preserved Leinster's lead.

For all their advantage on the penalty count, Leinster couldn't make that pay either and only on the last play of the half did they get their noses in front through Barry Daly. But two quick-fire tries in the third quarter from Federico Ruzza and then a lovely finish by Allan - latching on to a wild pass out the back by Jack McGrath - changed the complexion.

And Leinster couldn't switch it back again. Not great for them, but worse for Ulster. And a tidy night's work for Benetton.

Scorers - Leinster: Strauss, Daly try each; Carbery pen, con; Benetton Treviso: Allan try, con, Bigi, Ruzza try each.

Leinster: J Larmour; F McFadden (R Byrne 62), R O'Loughlin (A Byrne 52 HIA), N Reid, B Daly; J Carbery, J Gibson-Park (N McCarthy 62); J McGrath (capt) (E Byrne 62), R Strauss (J Tracy 47), A Porter (M Bent 62), R Molony, I Nagle (M Kearney 65), Jordi Murphy, M Deegan, S O'Brien (P Timmons ht).

Benetton: J Hayward; A Bronzini, T Iannone, A Sgarbi (capt), M Ioane; T Allan, T Tebaldi (yc 65-75); F Zani (C Traore 47), L Bigi (E Makelara 56), S Ferrari (T Pasquali 47; S Ferrari 72); M Lazzaroni (I Herbst 56), A Zanni (M Fuzer 47); F Ruzza, N Manu, S Negri.

Referee: B Whitehouse (Wales).

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