By Brendan O’Brien
Leinster 15 Benetton Rugby 17: Leinster’s preparations for next week’s Champions Cup semi-final against Scarlets hit the most unlikely of speed bumps in Ballsbridge this evening with a shock 17-15 Guinness PRO14 defeat to Benetton.
Leo Cullen rested a whole host of his top men for the European encounter in the Aviva Stadium but this still ranks up there as one of the most eye-catching results in the competition for many a year.
The loss is unlikely to have any material effect on the province’s continental ambitions and their home semi-final berth in the PRO14 is a sure thing if not yet mathematically confirmed with just one game left to play in the regular season.
None of which is to say that this won’t sting.
Michael Bradley had warned last week, after his Zebre side lost here at the RDS, that this might not be the best time to face a Benetton side that had won seven of their last nine games. Even then, few expected hardship on this scale for the home crew.
The two Italian franchises had come to Dublin 17 times prior to this and lost every time and here Benetton were facing a Leinster outfit that had lost just the once in Dublin through 37 games stretching back to December of 2015.
The only away win in that time was earned by Scarlets in last year’s Guinness PRO12 semi-final but this two-point success was Benetton’s eleventh of the season – a new record for a side clearly going places under Kieran Crowley.
Leinster stuttered all evening.
Benetton’s defence played a part in holding them in check, although the Italians were breached twice in the opening half, once through Richardt Strauss after seven minutes and again on the stroke of half-time when Barry Daly squeezed in at the left corner.
The visitors had struck back long before that second, hooker Luca Bigi the man holding on tightly to the ball when a maul rumbled over the Leinster whitewash at the Simmonscourt end, but the remainder of the half was spent on player watch.
A fit again Sean O’Brien was quiet until being stood down at half-time, Jordan Larmour injected a spark most times he touched the ball while Joey Carbery faced the unenviable task of moulding the play into some sort of shape on this rare appearance at out-half for the province.
Whatever was said in the home dressing-room during the interval didn’t have the desired effect.
Flanker Federico Ruzza claimed Benetton’s second try nine minutes after the restart, a lovely box kick by scrum-half Tito Tebaldi bouncing awkwardly and allowing full-back Jayden Hayward to outjump Fergus McFadden and feed Ruzza for the touch down.
Even worse was to follow five minutes later with Jack McGrath ballooning a straightforward pass over Noel Reid’s scrum and into the open back field. Tommaso Allan was quickest to react, the Italian out-half kicking ahead twice before dotting down behind the posts.
Carbery responded shortly after with a penalty to reduce the gap to just two points at 17-15 but the visitors continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession and territory and should have claimed a bonus point fourth try with 15 minutes left.
That they didn’t was down to a moment of madness from their Azzurri scrum-half, Tebaldi stamping twice on the arm of the prostrate Max Deegan at the base of a ruck just metres from the Leinster in-goal area and with the home side scrambling to man the line.
The yellow card that followed was inevitable and yet Leinster hardly managed to escape their own half in the ten minutes that followed, let alone punish the Italians with a score or two. It simply wasn’t happening for them.
Camped on their own line as the clock struck red, they were well beaten and the dwindling number of home fans paid tribute to their unlikely conquerors with a standing ovation and round of applause at the final whistle.
Leinster: J Larmour; F McFadden, R O’Loughlin, N Reid, B Daly; J Carbery, J Gibson-Park; J McGrath, R Strauss, A Porter; R Molony, I Nagle; Jordi Murphy, S O’Brien, M Deegan.
Replacements: P Timmins for O’Brien (HT); J Tracy for Strauss (51); A Byrne for O’Loughlin (HIA, 53); R Byrne for McFadden, M Bent for Porter, E Byrne for McGrath and N McCarthy for Gibson-Park (all 62); M Kearney for Nagle (65).
Benetton Rugby: J Hayward; A Bronzini, T Iannone, A Sgarbi, M Ioane, T Allan, T Tebaldi; F Zani, L Bigi, S Ferrari; M Lazzaroni, A Zanni; F Ruzza, S Negri, N Manu.
Replacements:v M Fuser for Lazzaroni (HIA, 9-18) and for Zanni (47); C Traore for Zani and T Pasquali for Ferrari (both 47); E Makelara for Bigi and I Herbst for Lazzaroni (both 57); D Budd for Ruzza (66); S Ferrari for Pasquali (72).Referee: B Whitehouse (WRU).