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Leinster huff and puff but eventually cruise past Zebre to secure Pro14 playoff berth

Leo Cullen’s side didn’t make it easy for themselves but had too much for the Italians.

Rory O'Loughlin goes over for Leinster's second try.
Rory O'Loughlin goes over for Leinster's second try.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Leinster 41

Zebre 6

Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS

A COME DOWN of some sorts was expected, only natural given the heights scaled just seven days ago, but Leinster huffed and puffed for large periods of this game and needed a late flurry to eventually put a dogged Zebre side away.

The scoreboard will suggest this was a straightforward bonus-point victory over Italian opposition but Leo Cullen’s side made hard work of it and a disjointed and inaccurate performance will have done little for those looking to stake their claim for the Champions Cup semi-final against Scarlets.

Nevertheless, five more points ensures Leinster’s place in the Pro14′s end-of-season playoffs and further tightens their grip on top spot in Conference B, which would see them automatically progress to the semi-final stage.

Tries from James Lowe and Rory O’Loughlin were the highlight of an otherwise nondescript first half and, at times, the fare on show was awful to watch, only for Leinster to eventually wake up and go over five times in an improved second-half display.

Lowe grabbed a brace, as did man-of-the-match Max Deegan, who was one of few players in blue to stand out while Dan Leavy, Josh Murphy and Barry Daly were all influential.

Zebre, to their credit, showed admirable ambition in the opening periods and had they been more patient and clinical with ball in hand, could have made this an uncomfortable afternoon for the eastern province.

“I don’t think it was one of our best performances,” Deegan admitted afterwards.

As it was, Michael Bradley’s side eventually fell away after putting in a big first-half shift and Leinster made hay to add gloss to the scoreboard, with replacements Vakh Abdaladze and Bryan Byrne rounding off the scoring in the far corner.

It was a strong and commanding finish from Leinster but Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will be left with plenty to ponder after an uninspiring display left much to be desired heading into next week’s visit of Treviso.

More importantly, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Leavy and Devin Toner all came through unscathed as Leinster were able to maintain that winning habit heading towards Scarlets on 21 April.

Max Deegan with Mattia Bellini Max Deegan was man of the match. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

A home win was never really in doubt here, but it was the poor souls in the north and south stands you felt feel sorry for, not only having to endure a dire first half of rugby but then to have the heavens open on them compounded matters.

The majority sought refuge wherever they could find it, leaving either end largely unoccupied, but those who did brave the elements were at least treated to a well-worked team try, finished by O’Loughlin and created by fullback Daly, who slalomed through midfield in the build-up.

Better late than never, and all that.

Leinster were horribly inaccurate to that juncture, a slow start aggravated by a string of basic errors while Zebre’s aggressive linespeed in defence caused problems with the hosts unable to problem-solve on their feet.

The visitors enjoyed 52 per cent of the first-half possession, and just as much territory, but lacked a killer edge with ball in hand and only had Carlo Canna’s penalty to show for their efforts at the break.

Leinster were fortunate to lead 12-3, all things considered, but were never really in any danger of losing the game, even if Jamison Gibson-Park was forced to make a try-saving tackle after Leonard Krumov had profited from the hosts’ sloppiness.

As it was, two first-half tries set them on their way, the first of which actually came from a poor kick from hand from Conor O’Brien, on the occasion of his first RDS start in the Leinster midfield.

The Zebre lineout was crooked, Gibson-Park went down the short side to Lowe and the Kiwi winger pinned the Italians back inside their own 22 with a flat kick which forced Matteo Minozzi to come across and hack it into touch.

Leinster went to the maul and after it had been pulled down, Lowe — always alert — took the penalty quickly and eventually finished it off in the left corner, showing strength and dexterity to dive over for his eighth try of the season.

Relief all round, and then the biblical rain arrived.

Zebre, buoyed by three wins over Irish provinces already this term, were here to play their part, too, with the offloading game adopted under Bradley’s stewardship very evident throughout.

Rory O'Loughlin and Ross Byrne with Dario Chistolini and Oliviero Fabiani O'Loughlin scored Leinster's second try before half-time. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

With Leinster disjointed in defence and lacking any sort of purpose around the field, the visitors continued to enjoy phase after phase of possession, hammering away around the fringes, but lacked quality in the opposition 22.

A simple set-piece move involving Canna and centre Faialaga Afamasaga saw the latter burst through the first set of tackles, only for the final pass to go to ground with the line at his mercy.

Scrum-half Marcello Violi then thought he had got the ball down at the base of the post but was denied by good work from Deegan and when play was brought back for a penalty, Canna opted to get his side up and running from the tee.

The wake-up call Leinster needed, and they eventually sprung into life from the restart.

Daly was given time and space from a loose clearing kick and he spotted the gap, bursting through two tackles and then stepping inside the covering Violi to give his side front-foot ball.

Zebre scrambled but quick ball allowed Leinster to recycle and spread it wide through the hands with James Tracy and Tadhg Furlong carrying hard and Lowe providing the final pop pass for O’Loughlin to dart over.

Much better from Leinster, and they had their third 20 seconds into the second period.

Violi took an age to set himself to box kick from the base of a ruck and Deegan didn’t need a second invitation to ghost in from the side, pick the ball from between the scrum-half’s legs and finish powerfully, holding off two tackles.

Cullen changed his entire front row just short of the hour mark but Leinster continued to huff and puff, failing to build any sort of momentum but the bonus-point try wasn’t long in coming.

A strong set-piece provided the platform and after Deegan peeled away from the back of the scrum, Lowe flung a high-risk pass right for O’Loughlin, allowing Leinster to pile through and spread it wide for the number eight to go over for his second.

James Lowe scores a try James Lowe grabbed two tries. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Not to be outdone, Lowe registered his brace shortly after Gavin Mullin, son of former Ireland international Brendan, had come on for his senior debut, becoming the 53rd different player Leinster have used this season.

A moment to remember for the UCD centre, ditto for young prop Abdaladze who went over for his first try for the province, quickly followed by Byrne’s effort.

But as for the rest of us? This one won’t live too long in the memory.

Leinster scorers:
Tries: James Lowe [2], Rory O’Loughlin, Max Deegan [2], Vakh Abdaladze, Bryan Byrne
Conversions: Ross Byrne [3 from 7]
Zebre scorers:
Tries:
Conversions:
Penalties: Carlo Canna [2 from 2]

LEINSTER: 15. Barry Daly, 14. Adam Byrne, 13. Rory O’Loughlin (Gavin Mullin 67’), 12. Conor O’Brien (Ciaran Frawley 67’), 11. James Lowe, 10. Ross Byrne, 9. Jamison Gibson-Park (Nick McCarthy 62’); 1. Cian Healy (Peter Dooley 55’), 2. James Tracy (Bryan Byrne 55’), 3. Tadhg Furlong (Vakh Abdaladze 55’), 4. Devin Toner (captain) (Ross Molony 62’), 5. Mick Kearney, 6. Josh Murphy, 7. Dan Leavy (Peadar Timmins 62’), 8. Max Deegan.

ZEBRE: 15. Matteo Minozzi, 14. Gabriele Di Giulio, 13. Giulio Bisegni, 12. Faialaga Afamasaga, 11. Mattia Bellini, 10. Carlo Canna, 9. Marcello Violi; 1. Andrea Lovotti, 2. Oliviero Fabiani, 3. Dario Chistolini (Roberto Tenga 55’), 4. Leonard Krumov, 5. George Biagi (captain) (Eduardo Bello 59’), 6. Valerio Bernabò, 7. Jacopo Sarto, 8. David Sisi.

Referee: Ian Davies [WRU]

Attendance: 10,115

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Ryan Bailey

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