Returning Fitzgerald doubles up to stake claim for Munster showdown
Leinster 27 Zebre 0
Leinster warmed up for next week's near sell-out derby against Munster with a less-than-convincing bonus-point win at a subdued and sub-Arctic RDS as Luke Fitzgerald proving his fitness with a two-try, 67-minute comeback from injury.
His brace was bookended by efforts from Noel Reid and Jordi Murphy but, despite fielding 11 internationals, top-of-the-table Leinster were well below par against the basement strugglers.
"It was a tricky game, the tempo was slow and made it hard for us to get rhythm," said Fitzgerald. "We didn't help ourselves with handling errors. Credit to us we got the bonus. It was flat, very weird.
"I did my best to get involved. Luckily the ball came my way and I managed to dot down twice. It was good to get some (game) time. It was a frustrating couple of weeks as I was pushing myself too hard at times and it was disappointing."
Coach Matt O'Connor added: "It was very stop-start but we got the points in the end and nobody got broken. They were awkward to deal with. Luke played very well and is in contention for a start next week."
Given the unattractiveness of both conditions and opposition, it was perhaps unsurprising that rather less than a full house greeted the home team's attempts to gobble a full house in terms of match points.
From the kick-off, Zebre looked off too; Tommaso Iannone hooking his opening restart deep beyond touch.
Zebre had conceded four penalties in eight minutes before Leinster spurned the line-out drive option to take the opening three points from the boot of Ian Madigan, the 100-capper celebrating his 24th birthday.
Zebre were always willing; sadly, they were rarely able. Leinster errors, particularly on their own ruck, kept them interested in open play, while they also secured one scrum turnover and then a penalty shot at goal, as Tadhg Furlong struggled early on. Furlong would depart injured, replaced by Six Nations hero Martin Moore.
Gifted the scrum penalty, Iannone, the part-time pivot, maintained his full-time habit of fluffing the kick. After Leinster collapsed a maul, Iannone attempted to hide behind a second-row before being persuaded to have another shot. Like John Daly on one of his bad days, he sliced that kick so wide, it may well have ended up in the hot dog stand.
Madigan maintained the theme of sloppy place-kicking with a poor penalty attempt but surely Leinster would make the numbers count. And so they did seven minutes before the break.
Fitzgerald initially dazzled from deep, then Fergus McFadden danced in midfield, bringing Leinster close to the line from where, after 18 wheezing phases, young Reid pounced for the opening try. Madigan, unforgivably, would miss once more. At 8-0 Leinster were up and, er, jogging. They were not applauded off at the break; rather they departed in a hushed silence normally reserved for a church service.
After the wonders of Paris, this was like watching a different sport. Leinster re-emerged with their religious devotion to self-enforced errors unshaken, clearly unmoved by, or else deaf to, any half-time debriefing.
Zebre were content to spoil even if aided by Leinster's mounting inadequacies; their best attacking gambit was Giovanbattista Venditti's comical, Benny Hill-type push on McFadden as he chased a grubber.
Poor Michael van Vuuren seemed to receive a concussive blow and didn't seem to know where he was; those struggling to pay attention to this deteriorating affair may have sympathised with the sentiment, if not the predicament.
Of course, he played on.
Even the gormless PA man was affected by the ennui; announcing too enthusiastically that Shane Jennings would replace Isaac Boss.
Leinster eventually did score a second try and it was worth waiting for, at least if you were Fitzgerald, who capped a sparky comeback with an easy finish following a close-in rumble.
Madigan, improbably given his earlier woes, nailed the touchline conversion for 15-0. Leinster finally produced something of beauty to provide Fitzgerald with his second in the 65th minute.
Madigan worked a lovely loop with Jennings before Reid angled his run cleverly before feeding Fitzgerald.
He left the fray happy with his lot and pleased to evade the two lunging attacks from flailing Italian arms and legs after both touchdowns.
Leinster fans left reasonably happier too when Murphy bundled over from a last-minute line-out maul to belatedly clinch the bonus point. They couldn't get out of the place quick enough when the whistle went.
Leinster – Z Kirchner; D Fanning, F McFadden, N Reid (, J Gopperth 72), L Fitzgerald (B Macken 67); I Madigan, I Boss (E Reddan 58); M Bent (J O'Connell 72), R Strauss (A Dundon 67), T Furlong (M Moore 30); L Cullen (capt.), M McCarthy (T Denton 62); K McLaughlin (S Jennings 57), D Ryan, J Murphy.
Zebre – D Odiete; G Toniolatti (G Palazzani 62), G Venditti, K Ratuvou, D Berryman (A Chillon 72); T Iannone (G Toniolatti 76), B Leonard; S Perugini (A De Marchi HT), T D'Apice (D Giazzon 51), D Ryan (D Chistolini 53); G Biagi (M van Vuuren 43), M Bortolami capt (E Caffini 51); F Ferrarini, A Van Schalkwyk, S Vunisa (F Cristiano h-t).
Ref – M Mitrea (FIR)