Leinster save the best till last

 

The scoreline suggests that there was nothing in this match to make Leinster feel uncomfortable. But at 10-6 up and with 48 minutes gone, it would have crossed the home side's minds that they hadn't registered a score since the 15th minute - and they probably knew why.

It was only in a 10-minute flurry as the match came to a welcome close that Leinster finally found the fluidity and confidence to string together the moves that allowed scrum-half David O'Mahony and outside centre Martin Ridge to give Leinster the security of a two-try cushion.

The covering of out-half Gabriel Filizzola and the ability of international centre Paolo Vaccari to thread his way through the narrowest of midfield corridors occasionally unsettled Leinster, but it was the home side's own play that transpired to be the most effective obstacle of all. Ball handling, primarily, ensured that Leinster would have to battle for 70 minutes in a match that could have been won in 40.

"I wasn't happy with the overall play. I think we were very tense and the embarrassment of losing to Milan was in the players' minds. They didn't handle well. But they didn't take the easy option either. They didn't resort to box kicking or kicking to touch and forcing errors. They tried to run the ball, which paid off at the end of the game with two tries, but obviously, the skills are not there yet," said coach Mike Ruddock.

There were, however, some glimpses of players coming back into imposing form. Victor Costello gathered at the base of the scrum and attacked Milan's out-half repeatedly from set pieces, invariably making yardage well over the gain line. In defence, too, Costello has tightened up and he was justifiably man of the match. John McWeeney, when given the ball in space, is a most powerful runner and showed it on several occasions, although more assertion and decision-making on his part would have brought greater dividends.

Right wing Denis Hickie illustrated his pioneering spirit, always probing for running options. The fact that he was caught once or twice should not be held against him. The Leinster pack dominated the Italians and provided a regular supply of ball, but it was the kicking of Alan McGowan that gave Leinster the lead after only three minutes. Filizzola replied shortly afterwards before Leinster clinically sucked Milan into a set move five yards out.

Costello broke on the right and after a swift interchange, Ridge crossed over untouched with Hickie further outside him just in case. McGowan converted for the 10-3 lead and Leinster slowly began to simmer, never quite making boiling point.

McWeeney was bravely taken out by a flying Filizzola as he steamed into the corner midway through the first half, but play, most frustratingly, kept breaking down.

Milan were prepared to dive offside beyond kicking range and kill most ball, but Leinster contributed too, with fumbles and misdirected tosses at which even the passive crowd winced.

Vaccari made a blinding break just before halftime after Filizzola had taken the score to 10-6 following some lip from Leinster which had encouraged referee Ed Morrison to move the ball 10 yards closer to the Leinster goal. Fortunately for the home side, a well-timed heel tap from captain Kurt McQuilkin grounded him. Filizzola by then had kicked the last of his points.

McGowan added a penalty for 13-6 with just over an hour gone before the final two scores arrived to an audible sigh of relief from the crowd.

With a scrum set in front of the Milan goal, Costello fed O'Mahony, who wriggled through, just reaching the line with his outstretched arm. The final try probably pleased Ruddock more than most. Milan had set up a counter-attack which broke down just inside the Leinster half. Morrisson waved on play for a good advantage call after a Milan knock on and Costello gathered in space. Seizing the moment, the backrow ran at the heart of the stretched Italians and, before being swallowed by the cover, managed to squeeze the ball out to Ridge in the corner for his second of the game.

"Brian Ashton is looking to play a running game with the Irish team and I am one of his lieutenants," said Ruddock afterwards.

"I'll be looking for that approach. But if you ask to play a more open style, you get more mistakes. It's percentages."