Not many will have predicted the events that unfolded in Ballsbridge on Saturday night, but there will be little appetite to dwell on this defeat as Leinster push on towards this weekend’s season-defining meeting with Scarlets.
Benetton, with no game this weekend, will have time to celebrate their first win in Dublin. They should. Between themselves and Zebre they had made the trip to the Irish capital 17 times before and left empty-handed.
As for their Irish hosts ... Only once in their 37 previous games played in Dublin, stretching back to December 2015, had they been bettered in these parts and that was when Scarlets had their number in a Guinness PRO14 semi-final.
But they will know too that this loss signifies little. It hasn’t even impaired their league ambitions. With a Scarlets ‘B’ side routed up in Edinburgh earlier in the day, Leinster are all but mathematically assured of top spot and a home semi-final in Conference B anyway.
And it will hardly curb continental ambitions either.
Leo Cullen rested a host of front-line talent for this one, all of whom were in the stand killing time ahead of the crunch European summit down the road at the Aviva. There was a similar sense of pregnant pause on the pitch.
Leinster just never got going, hampered by their own failings and by a Benetton team that had won seven of their previous nine league games and one that, with this victory, has now amassed a club record 11 successes in the one campaign.
“We’re going to have to move on pretty quickly because we’ve a huge game on Saturday at the Aviva,” said Cullen. “That’s not at the level for us, I didn’t think we were at the level we needed to be.”
Leinster fared well in the first-half, bookending a rather shapeless period with tries from Richardt Strauss and Barry Daly, although Benetton served notice of their intent with an eleventh-minute riposte from hooker Luca Bigi.
The second-half was the more troubling one for the hots with tries from Federico Ruzza and Tommaso Allan prompting nothing more than a Joey Carbery penalty in response, even when scrum-half Tito Tebaldi was sent to the sin for reckless raking of Max Deegan’s arm.
Leinster were swarmed at the ruck, bested in contact and guilty of too many basic individual errors although it should be said that maybe only half-a-dozen of those on duty here are likely to clock in against the Welsh region this weekend.
Memories of the province’s European semi-final loss to Clermont Auvergne 12 months ago may have cut deepest last season, but the bones of their last four defeat to Scarlets in the PRO12 will be most vivid the days ahead.
“It’s in the back of their minds,” said Cullen. “It’s quite a long time ago now. I’ve looked back at the footage and there’s a few different characters. The mix of the teams is slightly different. Scarlets are a better team now. I hope we’ll be better than we were last year too.” That will depend to an extent on the men available to him. Sean O’Brien bagged 40 minutes on his return from a shoulder injury and there was a mixed message from Cullen afterward who said that, while the flanker came off at the break feeling sore in the joint, his minutes were being managed. Robbie Henshaw looks good to feature if required having taken full part in the pre-match warm-up following his own shoulder issues while scrum-half Luke McGrath is in the ‘wait-and-see’ bracket and Jack Conan, needs to get back training to have any chance. Rhys Ruddock, however, is almost certainly out of contention.
The phoney war of the last two weeks is now almost over. Both Leinster and Scarlets will bring matchday squads boasting players boosted by big Six Nations campaigns and all the better for a reduced workload over the past month.
Both sides have fallen to Benneton this past two months - Scarlets coming unstuck at the Stadio Monigo in February – so head coach Kieran Crowley was inevitably asked for his take on the showdown to come in five days’ time.
“I think Leinster are the strongest team in Europe from what I’ve seen. When you look at the way they play, they get inside your 30 metres and they strangle you. That was one of our objectives, to keep them outside our 30.
“Leinster are a strong team. I mean they’ve got so many Irish internationals. Having said all that, Scarlets rested all their guys (against Edinburgh). It will be a good game. But, if I had a one dollar to spend on it, I would probably chuck it on 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.
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).
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.
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).
B Whitehouse (WRU).
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