Robbie Henshaw return lifts Leinster spirits as Italians get job done
Leinster 15 Benetton 17
Leinster fans watching the warm-up before Saturday's defeat to Treviso didn't realise it at the time, but they had already seen the highlight of their night.
Later they would graciously rise to applaud the Italians for their historic first win in Dublin. Between them, Aironi and Zebre, this was the 18th attempt and finally it was Treviso who deservedly got over the line.
However, it was the presence of Robbie Henshaw taking part in the pre-game run-out that may be most telling ahead of Saturday's mammoth European semi-final against Scarlets.
It later emerged that the Athlone native took a full part in the warm-up. He also ran in the Captain's Run on Friday and Leo Cullen confirmed that he is expected to train fully this week, which would put him in the frame for the Aviva Stadium clash.
He has a better chance than most of those who were involved in this disjointed display.
Seán O'Brien was also prominent in the warm-up, but was strangely muted in the first-half before being withdrawn at half-time.
Perhaps that is understandable after so little action this side of Christmas, but he appeared to be carrying his left shoulder heavily and has a serious job on his hands in training this week to convince the coaches that he's ready for the most important game of Leinster's season.
Cullen's hand might be forced if Jack Conan fails to prove his fitness, while Rhys Ruddock is almost certainly out. Luke McGrath, however, is set to train fully.
Saturday's loss was annoying for the coach, who learnt plenty of truths about his side's famed strength in depth, but in reality he and his team will get away with it.
Scarlets also rested most of their front-liners and were hockeyed by Edinburgh, which meant the losing bonus point should ensure Leinster top Conference B regardless of what happens in Galway in two weeks' time.
That secures a home Guinness PRO14 semi-final against Munster, Scarlets or Edinburgh and could be doubly beneficial if they win next week because it books them a weekend off ahead of the European final.
Bilbao is what this season is all about for a team billed by Treviso coach Kieran Crowley as the best in Europe.
Having come up short in the final four of both competitions last year, they are determined to show that they've learnt their lesson.
"We want to be involved in European semi-finals, there were painful lessons in the semi-finals for us last year," Cullen said. "We lost here at home, the last time we lost at home, and that (loss to Treviso) is a painful reminder - as timely as it is.
"The semi-final as well when we lost against Clermont in France... We're back at this stage, the players have worked incredibly hard if you think back to this time last year, where it was a real feeling of almost getting there, but it wasn't good enough.
"We need to see if we have learnt those lessons, so it's a huge week for us.
"They've been through it now, for us it's about making sure we prepare as well as we can now.
"We're very clear about the plan in our minds going into the game. We know what potentially gets us into trouble against the Scarlets, we know on the flipside, if we get certain things right, like we did against Saracens, we can produce good moments and things in games, it's about trying to focus on what makes this game tick."
If Saturday was a night to forget for Leinster, it was one to savour for the Italians, who cherished their win alongside their small but vocal band of fans behind the goal at the Simmonscourt End at the RDS.
They were full value for it, dominating the collision zone and dirtying up Leinster's ball; bouncing back from tries from Richardt Strauss and Barry Daly that book-ended the first-half to control the second.
Luca Bigi's try kept them in touch, before Federico Russo punished defensive hesitation and Tommaso Allan exploited a woeful Jack McGrath pass to score the winning try.
Even with a spell of 15 against 14, when Tito Tebaldi got himself sin-binned for a wild stamp on Max Deegan, the home side couldn't muster a response and the Italians might regret not getting a winning bonus point.
For all the talk of Leinster's strength in depth, this was a reminder that you can't go too far into the well against a full-strength team, while the performance of Joey Carbery - operating off slow ball all night - was a concern.
He'll be on the bench on Saturday; the majority of those involved against Treviso will either be in the stand or playing for the 'A' team having fluffed their lines in the final audition.
LEINSTER - J Larmour; F McFadden (R Byrne 62), R O'Loughlin (A Byrne 52), N Reid, B Daly; J Carbery, J Gibson-Park (N McCarthy 62); J McGrath (capt) (E Byrne 62), R Strauss (J Tracy 51), A Porter(M Bent 62); R Molony, I Nagle (M Kearney 65); Jordi Murphy, S O'Brien (P Timmins h-t), M Deegan.
BENETTON - J Hayward; A Bronzini, T Iannone, A Sgarbi (capt), M Ioane; T Allan, T Tebaldi; F Zani (C Traore 47), L Bigi (E Makelara 56), S Ferrari (T Pasquali 47-72); M Lazzaroni (M Fuser 9-18) (I Herbst 56), A Zanni (M Fuser 47); F Ruzza (D Budd 67), S Negri, N Manu.
Ref - B Whitehouse (Wales).