Leinster qualify as top seeds with Benetton win
Irish province earn home Champins Cup quarter-final after hard-fought match in Italy
Coelan Doris scored the first try of the match. Photo: Matteo Ciambelli/Inpho
Benetton 0 Leinster 18
Victory confirmed Leinster as number one seeds for the knockout stages of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup, guaranteeing home advantage up to the final in Marseille provided they continue on their winning ways. It was a 16th straight win for Leo Cullen’s side this season, their unbeaten record intact.
The result supersedes the aesthetics of the performance, one that was fractured and laboured for large tranches of the game. Conditions were difficult with rain, wind and a cloying surface but it doesn’t excuse aspects of the visitors’ display.
Leinster rescued the win with a more intelligent and better managed second half, having turned with a 3-0 interval lead. It could have been appreciably 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.
Caelan Doris, James Ryan and Robbie Henshaw were exceptional throughout, Andrew Porter another standout player 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. Benetton elected to go to the corner rather than take the points on five occasions but crucially didn’t come away with any scores.
Benetton dominated territory and possession for most of the half and at one point had 77 per cent of the ball and 87 per cent territorial advantage. They bossed the collisions, repeatedly breaching the gain-line, with outhalf Ian Keatley offering a nice variety to his passing, using inside and outside runners.
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 but they were preoccupied with running over the top of their opponents, narrow in orientation.
It took 10 minutes before Leinster managed to get into their opponents half but that was a brief foray as the Irish province continued to give away penalties that saw them corralled in a corner near their own line. It was a charmed existence on occasion but the visitors eventually lifted the siege with a superb turnover from Sean Cronin.
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 and the home side appetite and aggression, was very effective in shutting down the Irish province.
Leinster, making little or no headway for the most part, did manage to secure the only score of the half, a 17-metre penalty from the boot of outhalf Byrne. Benetton survived a yellow card when secondrow Irne Herbst was sent to the bin but the visitors crucially got the first score after the interval, Byrne’s second penalty.
On 57-minutes a good turnover from replacement Peter Dooley allowed Jordan Larmour to put kick through; the chase was excellent and Leinster managed to drive Angelo Esposito back over his line. The visitors hammered away close-in initially but 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, McGrath’s clever reverse flick found Doris who showed great strength to power over. Ross Byrne missed the conversion but eight minutes later made no mistake, albeit via an upright, after replacement hooker James Tracy touched down at the back of a well co-ordinated lineout maul.
At 18-0 Leinster had some breathing space that allowed them to see out the match relatively comfortably, a sentiment that would have seemed alien for three quarters of the game.
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. Yellow card: I Herbst (Benetton) 41 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; T Furlong for Porter 52 mins; R Ruddock for Deegan 57 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. Yellow card: Doris 18 mins.
Referee: K Dickson (England)