Leinster made their first trip outside of Dublin for 7 1/2 months on Saturday to face a Benetton side that pushed Ulster all the way last week. It was a largely scrappy affair with both sides struggling to get going. For a second game in a row Benetton were denied a losing bonus point despite being good value for it having put up a tremendous fight. In front of 1000 fans were in attendance at Stadio Monigo as Benetton showed themselves to be ever improving, while Leinster got their 21st consecutive league win, spanning across 3 seasons.
Two and a half minutes in Leinster had the opportunity to go in front, and Ross Byrne took it, pointing to the posts. Michael Bent, the oldest player in the Leinster squad for this game at 34, went off for a blood sub. Will O’Connors was also struggling with an injury, but was strapped up and able to continue. Benetton immediately won a penalty back, Paolo Garbisi made no mistake from the tee. 4 minutes in it was 3 points a piece. Ross Byrne hit another penalty in what was a stop start opening 10 minutes.
Benetton saw themselves down to 14 when their number 14 Tavuyaru was shown yellow for what was deemed to be an intentional knock-on. Possibly harsh as it seemed a genuine attempt at gathering the ball but having only gone with one hand he couldn’t have too many complaints. Garbisi leveled the scoring once again with a penalty. Benetton defended well against Leinster but gave away a penalty. The Boys in Blue went to the corner against the Italians who were down a man, with James Tracey crossing over. Byrne curled the conversion over. The score was 6-13 with Benetton back to their full compliment.
Benetton were arguably the better side in the first 30 minutes. They consistently put Leinster under pressure, particularly at the lineout. When James Ryan was shown a yellow card for cynical play and the Italians went to the Italians went to the corner it seemed ominous. Baird turned over the lineout but the Benetton pressure meant it was carried over the try line by a Leinster player, leading to a 5 metre scrum. This was Benetton’s best opportunity of the half. And they got there. Negri reached over the line to the joy of the home crowd. The conversion was a casual effort, the flags went up but their were questions whether it had gone over. 13-13.
Leinster went on the attack, Garry Ringrose went on a mazey run nearly getting there. Eventually Leinster did get over with James Lowe showing quick feet to touch down with just under 3 minutes to go. Gibson-Park drew the tackle sending the winger on his way. Byrne’s conversion made it 13-20. Leinster went in at halftime ahead despite not being at their best, just as they did so often in last years league campaign.
Benetton didn’t lie down in the second half, they got a try back to bring the game within 2 points, Faiva the scorer. Front row changes for Leinster made a difference. Healy and Cronin helped Conan drive over the line, the ball was knocked on. However Leinster were given a penalty try and awarded 7 points.
Another Byrne penalty stretched the lead. A try with 7 minutes to go for Benetton made it a 5-point game. Leinster hit back with a James Ryan try late on to seal the win. Benetton pushed for a losing bonus point. They went until the 86th minute but were cruelly denied anything from the day.
Benetton 25-37 Leinster
Benetton have proved a stumbling block for Leinster in recent years. One of the last two league games Leinster failed to win was in the RDS against Benetton, a 27-27 draw. Jordan Larmour’s shoulder injury will make Andy Farrell sweat ahead of Ireland’s resumed Six Nations. Leinster’s next opponents are Zebre at home. You would have to fear for the Italian minnows going up against the league champions, who will have to face the fact they are not in the European Cup final the week prior.
Benetton face Scarlets at home next. They have had two tough games against last seasons beaten finalists to open this campaign. If they can keep up their intensity for a full 80 minutes they’ll have every chance of a Champions Cup play-off, or even a Pro14 Quarter Final spot.