Monday 18 December 2017

Leinster wallop Zebre by 64 points as Johnny Sexton impresses on return

Leinster 70 Zebre 6

Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

‘Routine victory’ doesn’t even begin to come close to describing Leinster’s facile win over Zebre last night but in the grand scheme of things, it was one that had plenty of positives for the home side.

Johnny Sexton returned from his seven-week lay-off and came through 56 minutes unscathed, kicking 12 points. The Ireland out-half looked sharp as he typically barked orders at those around him but he will know that the tasks coming down the line are an altogether different proposition.

Leinster took advantage of Munster not playing in the Pro12 this week as they drew level with their old rivals on points at the top of the table.

Training sessions in UCD are unquestionably tougher than what Leinster were up against last night and how beneficial such a stroll in the park will be for them before Montpellier arrive in Dublin next Friday remains to be seen.

Challenges at this level don’t come much easier and Zebre’s meagre performance at the RDS must surely rank as one of the worst ever in the Pro12.

The bonus point was wrapped up after just half an hour and Leinster added a fifth first-half try for good measure as attentions immediately began to turn to the Champions Cup next week.

Rory O’Loughlin’s growing reputation continued as he helped himself to a hat-trick while Luke McGrath again impressed.

It took the home side all of four minutes to register their first of 10 tries. Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose linked cleverly in midfield to set the platform.

Ringrose’s dancing feet bamboozled a Zebre defence that didn’t need much to confuse them. Ringrose was tackled high, the second dodgy challenge in the opening minutes – despite World Rugby’s new laws coming into force, referee Dan Jones turned a blind eye to both.

Not to matter, McGrath was quickest to the breakdown and he floated an inviting pass out wide for Sean O’Brien who didn’t have to break stride to score in the corner. Sexton nailed his first conversion, much to the relief of the crowd.

Edoardo Padovani did put Zebre on the board after 14 minutes when Cian Healy was penalised but Leinster immediately hit back when Hayden Triggs powered his way over from close range.

Sexton again added the extras but Padovani cut the gap (14-6) with another penalty, this time after O’Brien was pinged at the breakdown.

McGrath got the try his performance deserved after 26 minutes. Devin Toner gathered the restart, and McGrath fed Zane Kirchner, who breezed by a couple of defenders before again linking with his scrum-half who had run a clever support line.

Sexton maintained his 100pc record from the tee with the easiest kick of the night and he did so again on the half-hour mark when Healy secured the most inevitable bonus point.

Leinster still weren’t finished in a rampant first half and it was McGrath’s creativity that created the space for O’Loughlin to score down the blindside.

Sexton’s fifth conversion put Leinster into a 35-6 half-time lead and the only questions that remained were how long would the out-half be left on the pitch and how many points would Leinster rack up.

The second half was just eight minutes old when the onslaught continued. This time the forwards made the hard yards before Sexton put Ringrose through a gaping hole to score under the posts.

Sexton’s conversion was followed by Leo Cullen ringing the changes. As poor as Zebre are, it was difficult not to feel sorry for them as an entire new Irish front-row were rolled off the bench, looking to impress. Sexton was sensibly replaced before the hour mark to as much enthusiasm as the bored crowd could muster.

Henshaw thought he was clean through to score what would have been his first Leinster try but the referee called play back for a forward pass.

O’Loughlin had no such trouble after 68 minutes when Ringrose was inexplicably allowed to turn in the tackle and offload to the in-form winger, who scored his second try of the game.

Ross Byrne, who will have benefited hugely from his recent run in the team, had replaced Sexton and slotted the easy conversion as Leinster stretched their lead to 49-6.

By now the supporters were headed for the exits but the majority that remained saw O’Loughlin complete his hat-trick after more excellent work from Ringrose.

O’Loughlin is enjoying an impressive breakthrough season and he took his try tally to seven for the season.

There was however one sour note for Cullen as Sean Cronin limped off with a hamstring injury and will be a major doubt for Montpellier.

Zebre’s misery was compounded when Guillermo Roan was sin-binned late on and Ringrose took advantage to score his second of the evening. Byrne was on target with both conversions.

Jamie Heaslip made a rare appearance off the bench and his converted try completed the rout in injury-time but by that stage, what little interest was left in a staggeringly one-sided contest had long gone.

Leinster – Z Kirchner; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (N Reid 67), R O’Loughlin; J Sexton (capt) (R Byrne 56), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 46); C Healy (J McGrath 49), J Tracy (S Cronin 49-73)), M Bent (T Furlong 49); D Toner, H Triggs (R Ruddock 49); D Leavy (J Heaslip 60), S O’Brien, J Conan.

Zebre – K Baker; M Bellini, M Pratichetti (G Venditti 50), T Castello, L Greeff (G Palazzani 55); E Padovani (S Bordoli 62), M Violi; A Lovotti (A De Marchi 66), T D’Apice (C Festuccia h-t), P Ceccarelli (G Roan 6-15, 59); G Koegelenberg (J Furno 50), G Biagi (capt); D Minnie (M Mbanda 45), F Ruzza (P Ceccarelli 74), A van Schalkwyk.

REF – D Jones (WRU)

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