Fitzgerald sparks Leinster comeback against Zebre
Leinster 29 Zebre 8
For 47 minutes it didn't go according to Leinster's plan but they eventually wore down a stubborn Zebre outfit at a subdued RDS last night.
On paper, the league's worst side arriving to the home of the defending champions would have seemed like the perfect antidote to last week's shock defeat to the Dragons, but the Italians quite clearly didn't read the script as they threatened to cause another major upset.
Already forced to draft in five amateur players, Zebre lost two more of their front-liners during a first half that was littered with Leinster errors.
Matt O'Connor didn't waste time in ringing the changes as he sprung Sean Cronin and Cian Healy from the bench just two minutes into the second period.
Healy was playing his first game in a blue jersey since September but it was another Irish international who lit up the contest as Luke Fitzgerald gave a timely reminder of his class with a trademark scintillating run that sparked Leinster's comeback.
Having been starved of possession for most of the evening, Fitzgerald was finally brought into the game and he didn't need a second invitation to dance his way past three would-be tacklers.
There are few better sights in Irish rugby than Fitzgerald at full tilt and the poise and balance that he showed would certainly have pleased Joe Schmidt.
Jimmy Gopperth had already missed a straightforward penalty before Hendrik Daniller's 22nd-minute try stunned the sparse home crowd.
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Andrea De Marchi spotted a gap in the defence and he found Italian international Mauro Bergamasco, who in turn sumptuously offloaded the ball for the onrushing Daniller, who finished off an excellent move.
Jack Conan thought he had gotten his side back into the game after half an hour but the TMO spotted a Shane Jennings knock-on in the build-up.
The Zebre defence held firm despite the barrage of pressure but their indiscipline was punished when Gopperth eventually put Leinster on the scoreboard with a penalty.
That was soon cancelled out when Mirco Bergamasco fired over a penalty to give his side a deserved 8-3 lead at the break.
O'Connor's early changes had an immediate impact and Cronin made a couple of strong carries before Fitzgerald's moment of magic.
When he was eventually tackled, Fitzgerald had the awareness to find Cronin and from the resulting ruck, Dominic Ryan got in under the posts.
Gopperth added the easy extras and 10 minutes later got in for a try of his own. From a five-metre scrum, Eoin Reddan who made a successful return from injury, fed Gopperth who capitalised on a slip to dot down. Again he converted as Leinster opened up a 17-8 lead.
Fitzgerald capped a good night for him personally with a try late and Cronin sealed the bonus-point with an injury-time try that Gopperth converted.
Job done but a tougher task lies ahead against the Ospreys next week.
Leinster - Z Kirchner (D Kearney 66); F McFadden, B Te'o, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, E Reddan (I Boss 66); M Bent (C Healy 42), A Dundon (S Cronin 42), M Moore (T Furlong 65); M McCarthy, K Douglas; D Ryan, S Jennings (c) (R Molony 60), J Conan (D Leavy 60).
Zebre - H Daniller; D Berryman, Mirco Bergamasco, M Pratichetti, M Visentin; L Orquera (E Padovani 3) (A Chillon 36), B Leonard; A De Marchi (M Naka 52), O Fabiani, L Lebison; V Bernabo (D Odiete 65); M Sutto (G Bernini 19); J Sarto (L Giovanchelli 62), Mauro Bergamasco (capt, R Riccioli 62), S Vunisa.
REF - N Owens (Wales)