Leinster made to work hard to maintain 100 per cent record
Dogged Benetton exposed some chinks in Cullen’s side’s armour, especially in the first half
Leinster’s Devin Toner and Eli Snyman of Benetton compete for a lineout at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo, Treviso. Photograph: Matteo Ciambelli/Inpho
Leinster will face Saracens in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup after their 16th successive victory of the season earned them a status as number one seeds. If they continue to win they won’t have to leave Dublin until the final in Marseille.
It’s a repeat of last year’s final when the English club prevailed – the clubs met at the Aviva Stadium the previous season in a quarter-final which Leinster won – and represents a tough draw for Leo Cullen’s charges despite the English club’s current travails on and off the pitch..
The result in Italy superseded all other considerations, although the team and coaches won’t be oblivious to the blemishes in some aspects of the performance and the scope of improvement required.
Benetton provided the doughty resistance that was telegraphed in advance, physically aggressive, dogged and once again luring Leinster into a type of game that occasionally makes the Irish team look ordinary.
That’s a challenge for the Irish province going forward, to be able to find a way to deal with teams that shut them down physically.
There are a couple of examples in their recent playing history and once again they look laboured and unsure in trying to solve the puzzle, certainly in the opening 40 minutes.
Leinster rescued the win with a more intelligent and better-managed second half display, having turned with a 3-0 interval lead.
It could have been different if Benetton had decided to take their points from several eminently kickable penalties when dominant in the first half an hour. They came away empty-handed much to the chagrin and frustration of the players.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen in his overview of the match, admitted: “We’re delighted to get a win but we had to dig it out. We talked before the game about how it was a relatively simple equation for us: we needed to win. As the match went on, we played in the right areas of the field, put pressure on them and then got the penalty and a couple of tries. We got what we needed, so I’m delighted with that.”
Caelan Doris, James Ryan and Robbie Henshaw were exceptional throughout, Ross Byrne and Andrew Porter other standout players as was captain and scrumhalf Luke McGrath, who found space where others toiled in vain, while Rhys Ruddock’s power was an important facilitator to Leinster’s improvement in the second half. The bench provided the visitors with the momentum and energy they craved to copper-fasten the result.
The opening 40 minutes was arguably the poorest and most disjointed that Leinster have produced this season, undermined by ill discipline, the visitors conceding nine penalties, something they managed to address while conceding just two in the second half.
Benetton dominated territory and possession and at one point had 77 per cent of the ball and 87 per cent territorial advantage. They bossed the collisions while repeatedly breaching the gain-line.
Leinster were not getting off the line hard enough in defence and were a little slow to realign at times but they did show character in ensuring that their line remained intact during that opening quarter; they conceded seven penalties in the first 23 minutes and had to defend several lineout mauls and a scrum close to their line.
The visitors were also down a man for 10 minutes, Doris receiving a yellow card for an early sack of the jumper at a lineout on 18 minutes. If Benetton had a little more wit and subtlety in attack they might have got the reward that their dominance merited.
A Sean Cronin turnover lifted the siege and Leinster eventually managed to breathe life into their attacking game. McGrath’s sniping round the fringes found space and gave his side some go-forward ball but the policy of one-out runners made it relatively straightforward to defend against, Benetton were often able to double-team the ball carrier.
Leinster did manage to secure the only score of the half, a 17-metre penalty from the boot of outhalf Ross Byrne, who added a second penalty soon after the restart before the visitors effectively sealed off victory with two tries in a six-minute spell.
The visitors hammered away close-in initially off the back of a five-metre scrum before a super long pass from Garry Ringrose to Dave Kearney, allowed the wing to transfer the ball immediately to Robbie Henshaw.
Even though he was grounded short of the line, McGrath’s clever reverse flick found Doris who showed strength to power over. Ross Byrne missed the conversion but eight minutes later made no mistake after replacement hooker James Tracy touched down at the back of a well co-ordinated lineout maul.
Cullen admitted: “You try and control as much as you can and there is a statistical advantage of playing at home. It’s important we make it count, get a big crowd, which presumably will be at the Aviva Stadium. It’s very positive overall.”
Scoring sequence: 34 mins: R Byrne penalty, 0-3. Half-time: 0-3. 52: R Byrne penalty, 0-6; 59: Doris try, 11-0; 65: Tracy try, R Byrne penalty, 0-18.
BENETTON: J Hayward; A Esposito, L Morisi, M Zanon, M Ioane; I Keatley, T Tebaldi; F Zani, H Faiva, S Ferrari; I Herbst, E Snyman; M Barbini (capt), A Steyn, T Halafihi. Replacements: N Quaglio for F Zanni 12 mins; , A Rizzi for Hayward 49 mins; C Traore for Ferrari 52 mins; G Pettinelli for Barbini 52 mins; T Barravalle for Faiva 62 mins; M Lazzaroni for Halafihi 62 mins; A Sgarbi for Herbst 65 mins; T Benvenuti for Zanon 72 mins; Zanon for Esposito 77 mins.
LEINSTER: J Larmour; D Kearney, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; R Byrne, L McGrath (capt); C Healy, S Cronin, A Porter; D Toner, J Ryan; M Deegan, J van der Flier, C Doris. Replacements: J Tracy for Cronin 52 mins; P Dooley for Healy 52 mins; R Ruddock for Deegan 57 mins; T Furlong for Porter 52 mins; J Gibson-Park for McGrath 62 mins; R Molony for Toner 69 mins; C Frawley for R Byrne 69 mins; R Kearney for Larmour 71 mins.
Referee: K Dickson (England)