Benetton have the final word as Leinster are caught out at the death
Leinster 27 Benetton 27
The prospect of the best team in the league playing the most improved team on a lovely evening at the RDS would be enough to drag in a few casuals with time on their hands. That Benetton were starting the night in the mix for a play-off spot added to the attraction. The only issue was how much hunger Leinster, home and hosed in the Guinness Pro 14 semi-finals, could bring to the table given the degree to which they have been filling their faces in this competition.
In the circumstances then the price of +13 points from the bookies for the away side seemed a bit off beam. And when they were seven points up after 13 minutes even moreso. Anyone who plays against this Italian side – buttressed by a blend of South Pacific and South African – is that they are unrelentingly physical. Second row Irne Herbst illustrates this perfectly. They are also well organised and confident that what they are doing works.
On this occasion they came desperately close, and had to settle for a draw with the last kick of the game from Tommy Allan. The result puts them in third place in Conference B, two points behind Ulster. It was a fair enough finish to an incredibly bruising encounter.
By half time Benetton were 13-6 ahead having enjoyed two thirds of the ball and the same in territory, a combination which forced the home side into making a whopping 109 tackles in the first 40 minutes alone. That’s a whole lot of energy expended by a side with a less than stellar bench. Two of that cavalry had already been pressed into service: Ciaran Frawley on for Noel Reid early in the game after a HIA, and then just before the break they lost lineout leader Mick Kearney with what looked like a serious shoulder injury. Jack Dunne, who replaced him, has lots of talent and promise but losing Kearney’s grunt against this opposition was costly.
Benetton’s try in that first half came from a predictable but unstoppable sequence: two consecutive penalties to touch to build the platform and then a perfect maul for Luca Bigli to break off and score. Tommy Allan’s extras gave them a 7-0 lead.
Leinster’s response was decent but when they put some heat on Benetton in the 22 metre zone they couldn’t get over the line. Instead penalties from Reid and Frawley – Luke McGrath almost scored a try but couldn’t gather a Joe Tomane Crossfield chip – was the best they could manage.
It was never a contest they could win off the tee so it would require something special to get them back in the game. They got it first from Luke McGrath with a quickly taken penalty that gave Leinster immediate momentum from which James Lowe did really well, taking a hard, flat pass off the ruck close in, to score. Frawley’s extras squared the game 13-13 with 48 minutes played.
Back came Benetton. Typlical of them it was a heavy duty stuff. They bludgeoned their way through 25 phases, starting well away from the Leinster line, and finishing with Federico Ruzza getting over and bodies all over the place. Allan’s conversion put them seven ahead again with 25 minutes to play. To Leinster’s credit though, despite having been battered and bruised en route to conceding that score they had lost none of their appetite.
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On 65 minutes they got to set up a close-in maul of their own, which replacement Bryan Byrne finished – game level again – and then when Marco Lazzaroni was done for a neck roll on Fergus McFadden the home team had another shot at a score. Frawley nudged them into position and from there a lovely combination between himself and Conor O’Brien saw the outhalf slide over close to the posts.
So Leinster were seven ahead but Benetton came back again with a sequence stretching to over 30 phases before Ratuva Tavuyara slipped Barry Daly’s tackle – and a referral upstairs for potential obstruction – to score. Allan needed to conversion to tie the game with the clock in the red. No problem.
Leinster: B Daly; F McFadden, C O’Brien, J Tomane, J Lowe; N Reid (C Frawley HIA 23), L McGrath (H O’Sullivan 76); J McGrath (P Dooley 56), J Tracy (B Byrne 56), A Porter (M Bent 56), M Kearney (J Dunne 37), S Fardy, M Deegan, C Doris, S Penny (E Byrne 76)
Benetton: J Hayward; R Tavuyara, M Zanon (A Rizzi 76), L Morisi (A Sgarbi 50), M Ioane; T Allan (capt), D Duvenage (TTebaldi 51); N Quaglio (D Appiah 56), L Bigi (T Baravalle 50) M Riccioni (S Ferrari 56), I Herbst, F Ruzza, S Negri (G Pettinelli, blood 5-10; 66), T Halafihi, A Steyn
Referee: N Owens (Wales)