Leinster guaranteed themselves top spot in the quarter finals of the Heineken Champions Cup with a win in a game that was ugly as a sweaty mules arse for the first 40.
The boys in blue went into the game knowing that a win of any kind would give them home games in the knockout rounds up until the final in Marseille, and a losing bonus point would have given them at least a home quarter.
Despite that Leinster weren’t at their prettiest in the first half. The Italians actually had the better of things early on in terms of territory. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable that any Italian side would have finished their Champions Cup pool campaign with 6 points and respectable scores against the favourites.
It’s a testimony to how much the Italians have improved, no longer at the top table purely due to finishing higher than lowly Zebre in the Pro 14. Benetton were here on merit having been unlucky to not get to the semi-finalsof last seasonsleague campaign.
Speaking of Zebre, that was probably the only less attractive Leinster performance so far this season. Leinster wet to the minnows and only came away with a 0 – 3 victory. That was of course during the World Cup campaign, so it’s possibly a forgivable anomaly.
It looked like we may have a repeat of that scoreline with the game at 0 – 3 in favour of the boys in blue at halftime. It took 35 minutes for Ross Byrne to get the opportunity to slot a penalty to edge the Pro 14 champions in front.
Despite leading, the team talk was likely an angry one at halftime. Benetton looked like they could have made it a nervous wait for Leinster, who were down to 14 after Doris was shown yellow early on. The Italians had chances and field position, but lacked that finishing edge. Benetton could well have reshaped the tournament, ensuring Leinster have to travel for a potential semi-final.
However it was Leinster who came good at the end of a scrappy half. This seemed to deflate Benetton. Herbst was shown a yellow card, which coincided with Leinster upping the gear. Despite the pressure Leinster took no points during the sin bin, but Byrne was on hand to kick a penalty to double Leinster’s lead after the Italians were back to their full compliment.
Leinster ringed in the changes in the tight 5, and got their reward. Ringrose send a long pass out wide to Kearney, who played in Henshaw. The centre nearly got over, before Doris touched down. Leinster suddenly led 0 – 11.
Leinster got a second shortly after. James Tracy was the name on the scoresheet, but it was a try that owed credit to all 8 forwards. Tracy threw the lineout to Doris, the maul was set, and Tracy finished it off. Byrne converted to make it 0 – 18.
Usually after two quick tries the floodgates have opened for Leinster this season. However, Benetton were able to keep the sore respectable, despite not being able to fashion any chances. Frawley, Larmour, and Molony all got a run in the last 10 minutes with the win secured.
In many ways it was far from what’s been typical of Leinster this season, this was only the 4th time they haven’t hit 30 or more points. But a few times this campaign we’ve seen the first half was a bit of an arm wrestle, before Leinster pulled away like a world class outfit.
Leinster dominate the game in terms of possession and territory. It speaks to Leinsters defence, which has, aside from during an unusual game against Munster, been spectacular.
This kind of performance won’t due in the Quarter finals though. An unusually high penalty count in the first half alongside a flat performance will be punished by better sides. It’s no harm having these reality checks during a strong season.
Remarkably, Leinster have won 100% of their games this season in the league and European cup. In the double winning season of 2018, they lost 6 games. Leinster could well be on course to beat that record, retain the league (for a 3rd year in a row), and regain the European cup.
Despite not setting the world on fire this weekend, Leinster proved they can win ugly. That’s necessary to win any top prize. Look at South Africa’s successful World Cup campaign, it was functional when it needed to be. The Leinster side is similar in ways to the Sprinboks (with a bit more flair), in that they have a tendency to blow teams away in the end without putting in a whole 80 minutes.
As we get to the business end of a long long season, the performance will need to be closer to 80 minutes. In May and June there won’t be a lot of time for under par slogs. But still, it’s no harm being brought back to earth every now and then. We say that after Ireland’s incredible 2018, they struggled to return to form after early disappointing performances in 2019.
Leinster ensure they remain favourites to lift the first Heineken Champions Cup of the 20’s. A 5th star is there to be taken.