Before this game, Leinster repeatedly talked up the difficulty involved in getting one over their Italian opponents.
To many, it felt like over-compensation — polite words surrounding a side that’s struggled to compete against the true elite.
Yes, Benetton had earned a win and a draw against Leinster in recent seasons, albeit against a fringe side, but surely they wouldn’t derail a side that had won 15 games on the bounce?
Well, at half-time in Treviso on Saturday, with Leinster leading 3-0, things suddenly looked a lot less rosy than many expected.
“We’re delighted to get a win but we had to dig it out,” said head coach Leo Cullen. “We talked before the game about how it was a relatively simple equation for us: we needed to win.
“After digging in, we weathered the storm and we started to have a lot more control in the game, especially in the second half.
“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 today, so I’m delighted with that.”
The 3-0 lead was eventually stretched to an 18-0 win, with tries from Caelan Doris and James Tracy helping the province beyond Kieran Crowley’s stubborn side, who battled far more than a side in their situation had any right to.
The win was a 16th in a row for Leinster — a club record — and ensured they now have a quarter-final home draw, and thanks to a generous loophole in European competition, a potential semi-final at the Aviva Stadium.
The hard-fought win meant Leinster finished their pool with a 100% record for the fifth time, and Cullen will be aware that in two of the previous four occasion (11/12 and 17/18) they went on to lift the title.
That home advantage made life a whole lot easier in previous knockout situations, and Cullen knows just how beneficial it can be — particularly for a side with such a strong home record.
“You try and control as much as you can and there is a statistical advantage of playing at home,” he said.
“It’s important we make it count, get a big crowd, which presumably will be at the Aviva Stadium. It’s very positive overall and now we’ll sit back and watch with interest who we’re going to play.
“The conditions were difficult, it wasn’t the prettiest of games. Definitely one for the purists, but from our end we are pleased to get the job done.
“It’s ‘move on’ at this stage. Overall, injuries seem to be OK. We knew it was going to be physical with the way that they play. I thought they were very aggressive in terms of their carrying.
“It certainly tested the desire of the tackler. I thought for the most part our guys stood up pretty well.
“We absorbed a lot of pressure and eventually went up the other end of the field and took our three points, which gives us a small lead. The second half was much better. I thought we were much more controlled and played in the right areas.”
Ross Byrne’s penalty was all that separated the sides at the break — only a fourth penalty for Leinster in a season when they’ve scored tries for fun. A second penalty after the restart showed how seriously they were taking the game, but eventually they took their scores, with Doris — recently called up to Andy Farrell’s Ireland Six Nations squad, bundling home for a try.
The young back-rower was a powerful presence in light blue, and even a yellow card could not detract from his all-round performance. James Ryan impressed on his return from a calf injury, just in time for Farrell, while Luke McGrath — who delivered a wonderful no-look pass for Doris’ try — reminded the coach there are more than two top-class scrum-halves fighting for the No9 shirt.
A second try arrived following Leinster’s decision to turn to a powerful bench, with hooker James Tracy stretching the visitors’ lead.
“There were a couple of tight penalties, not-release penalties, on either side and we seemed to lose out on those, which meant that we were suddenly pinned back in our half,” said Cullen.
“That’s pressure and when you’re 10m out from defending your own try-line, that’s when you give away more penalties and it can be hard to get out of that. Obviously Caelan goes to the bin for some repeat offences, it was an innocuous enough penalty, but it was on the back of another couple of penalties and suddenly we were under a bit more pressure.”
J Hayward (A Rizzi, 50); A Esposito, L Morisi, M Zanon (T Benvenuti, 70), M Ioane; I Keatley, T Tebaldi; F Zani (N Quaglio, 12), H Faiva (T Baravalle, 62), S Ferrari (C Traore, 52); I Herbst (A Sgarbi, 67), E Snyman; M Barbini (c) (G Pettinelli, 52), B Steyn, T Halafhi (M Lazzaroni, 62).
J Larmour (R Kearney, 71); D Kearney, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; R Byrne (C Frawley, 70), L McGrath (c) (J Gibson-Park, 62); C Healy (P Dooley, 52), S Cronin (J Tracy, 52), A Porter (T Furlong, 52); D Toner (R Molony, 70), J Ryan; M Deegan (R Ruddock, 57), J van der Flier, C Doris.
K Dickson (RFU)