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Dublin: 10°C Sunday 9 May 2021

Ringrose hat-trick the highlight as sluggish Leinster make winning start to Champions Cup campaign

Leo Cullen’s side had some frustrating moments at the RDS against an ill-disciplined Benetton team.

Leinster's Johnny Sexton celebrates his second-half try.
Leinster's Johnny Sexton celebrates his second-half try.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Leinster 33

Benetton 19

LEINSTER’S QUEST TO become the first team to win the Heineken Champions Cup five times is up and running, but Leo Cullen’s side can be thankful that they were able to blow off the cobwebs against an ill-disciplined and limited Benetton side at the RDS. 

There were flashes of quality in this 33-19 bonus point win, but there were plenty of uncharacteristic mistakes too. Following last weekend’s convincing Guinness Pro14 defeat of Connacht, Cullen added another scoop of returning Ireland internationals into the mix for this round one European tie, which may excuse the lack of cohesion which at times frustrated the home crowd. Yet they know this team will be confident of finding some rhythm as the weeks roll on.

The hosts were forced into a late change as Rory O’Loughlin was bumped up into the starting XV in place of Joe Tomane, who pulled up with a tight hamstring during Friday’s Captain’s Run, with Robbie Henshaw coming into the matchday 23 on the bench. 

They started brightly and it took just over four minutes for the dam to break as Garry Ringrose went over in the corner on Leinster’s first trip into the Benetton 22. The Blues swung the ball from right to left from a lineout, with Johnny Sexton playing in Ringrose after receiving the ball from Andrew Porter. Sexton, making his first appearance of the season in Leinster blue, pulled his conversion narrowly wide on the near side.

Attack quickly turned to defence as Leinster found themselves under pressure on their own line after the visitors kicked to the corner. Leinster appeared well set-up to keep Benetton at bay before Dean Budd managed to contort his body over a pile of bodies to dot down. Ian Keatley, back playing against his home province, added the extras to give the Italians a surprise early lead.

If that prompted fears that Leinster may have been in for a nervy evening, those concerns quickly evaporated as the Blues swooped for a second try just moments later, with Ringrose again supplying the finishing touch after some smart play from a lineout. This time Sexton made no mistake from the tee.

A game that had started at a frantic pace then took a breather as Caelan Dorris, on the occasion of his first Champions Cup start, was sent for a HIA after awkwardly carrying the ball into contact. Unfortunately for the young back-row, the knock ended his evening.

While losing Dorris was a blow, there was plenty for Cullen to be pleased about as his team began to hit their stride. European debutant Ronan Kelleher continued his fine start to the season with a solid performance, motoring around the pitch confidently and throwing well in the lineout. 

Yet under the surface it was clear that there was a frustration building within the Leinster players as they failed to capitalise on their possession, evident when James Ryan reacted angrily to a perceived loose tackle by Ira Herbst around the breakdown. 

If Benetton initially looked up for the fight, their ambition faded as the half wore on. They looked increasingly blunt in attack and their discipline was hugely problematic against a team of Leinster’s talent.

Number 8 Nasi Manu was fortunate to escape punishment for a late hit on Sexton that left the Leinster captain clutching his ribs on the ground. The boos that rang around the ground following that decision were perhaps still fresh in referee Pierre Brousset’s ears when he decided to sin-bin Nicola Quaglio on 28 minutes for a high tackle on Kelleher under the posts. There was no malice in the hit, but the prop paid the price for the latest in a string of poorly timed Benetton tackles.

james-ryan-and-irne-herbst Tempers flare during a scrappy first half at the RDS. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Kelleher showed no ill-effects of the knock, collecting the ball at the base of a ruck and producing some neat footwork to score Leinster’s third try on the half-hour mark as they took full advantage of the extra man. Like first choice hooker Sean Cronin, the 21-year-old is already showing a knack for getting in on the act in attack. This score was his seventh try in just six games this season. Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is surely taking note. Sexton kicked Leinster into a 12 point lead.

Keatley was handed an opportunity to cut the deficit with a long-range penalty, but his effort dropped short as Leinster took a 19-7 lead into the second half.

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Leinster picked up where they left off after the restart. A fine free-flowing move saw Johnny Sexton race over after some good work by Josh van der Flier. The roar of delight from the out-half may have been an indication of the frustration which still lingers following Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final exit.  

While that score should have allowed Leinster to put the foot down, they instead eased up in their approach. Hame Faiva was able to power over from a lineout maul, with Keatley again making no mistake with the conversion.

Cullen responded by replacing his entire front row, while Sexton also made way for Ross Byrne. Those changes momentarily revitalised his team, and as Benetton knocked piled on the pressure from a few yards out Leinster held firm and turned the ball over.

They took back the momentum and went in search of the killer blow. After a few patient phases of attack, Ringrose capped a fine performance with his hat-trick score, cleverly exploiting a gap in the Benetton line. 

Yet Cullen’s team allowed their focus to slip again and there was enough time for Benetton wing Luca Sperandio to swoop for a late try which will surely come be discussed during Leinster’s video review on Monday. Conceding three tries to Benetton is not good enough.

With Leinster’s returning internationals still settling back into club action, the result was all that really mattered here. The will need to improve for next week’s trip to face Lyon, but as far as Cullen is concerned, that is a problem that can wait until Monday morning.

Leinster’s history chasers are up and running.  

Scorers for Leinster
Tries: Ringrose (3), Kelleher, SextonConversions: Sexton (3/4), R Byrne (1/1)

Scorers for Benetton: 

Tries: D Budd, H Faiva, L Sperandio.

Conversions: Ian Keatley (2/3) 

Leinster: Jordan Larmour; Dave Kearney, Garry Ringrose, Rory O’Loughlin (Robbie Henshaw ’64), James Lowe; Jonathan Sexton (capt) (Ross Byrne ’57), Luke McGrath (Jamison Gibson-Park ’71); Cian Healy (Peter Dooley ’57), Ronan Kelleher (James Tracey ’57), Andrew Porter (Michael Bent ’57); Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock (Scott Fardy ’64), Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris (Max Deegan ’16). 

Benetton: Jayden Hayward; Angelo Esposito (Alberto Sgarbi ’64), Nacho Brex, Alberto Sgarbi (capt) (Tommy Allan ’53), Luca Sperandio (Federico Zani ’28); Ian Keatley, Dewaldt Duvenage (Tifo Tebaldi ’59); Nicola Quaglio (Frederico Zani ’57), Hame Faiva (Engjel Makelara ’53), Marco Riccioni (Tiziano Pasquali 28-38 HIA); Ira Herbst (Marco Fuser HT), Dean Budd (Marco Fuser HT); Giovanni Pettinelli, Braam Steyn, Nasi Manu (Toa Halafihi HT).

Yellow card: N Quaglio 28

Referee: Pierre Brousset (France)

Attendance: 15,080

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