When a rugby match kicks off, you have as many as 46 different people vying for your attention; part of the thrill of the anticipation is…
Hang on - forgot the officials! Better factor them in, let me start again…
When a rugby match kicks off, you have as many as 49 different people…
Wait, wait - probably should factor the TMO into that as well? Right, let’s have another go…
When a rugby match kicks off, you have as many as 50 different people vying for your attention; part of the thrill....
Oooh, what about the coaches?
“GET ON WITH IT!!!!!!!!”
Frustrating, isn’t it? All you want to do is catch up on the latest Harpin Leinster writeup, yet the author gets stuck on a finicky little detail and keeps having to start all over again. Well, imagine that as a rugby match and you’ll understand how this one went, literally from the kickoff.
The point I was trying to make with my opening thoughts was that although you have dozens of people involved in producing a result, it takes two to start as the referee blows his whistle and one of the outhalves drop kicks the ball. So when we get to full time and those same two people are the ones we’re talking about the most, it doesn’t bode well for the entertainment factor provided by said 80 minutes.
And what makes that all the more unusual is that even though we saw 6 tries and 62 points from the contest, it wasn’t all that more interesting than Leinster’s last trip to Italy in this competition just under a year ago, which had no tries and just 3 points.
It took ages for anyone to get the chance to actually play some rugby, even though the scoreboard was moving within 2 minutes. James Ryan batted back Ross Byrne’s kickoff but before we could settle into some phases, Treviso hooker Hame Faiva was pinged for a late tackle on our starting out half which gave him a chance to put us 3-0 up before all in the socially-distant (and great to see) home crowd had taken their seats.
And when the restart fell to Jack Conan in our 22, he strangely had little support upon taking it into contact and at the very first breakdown, Treviso number 8 Toa Halafihi latched on to earn a penalty which his own outhalf, the young prospect Paolo Garbisi, converted to level the scores with only 3 minutes gone.
Not to be outdone, the home side managed to make a hames of the next restart as winger Ratuva Tavuyara spilled the easy catch giving us a scrum, and when their tight head Tiziano Pasquali went to his knees, the ref’s whistle blew yet again and it wasn’t long before Ross Byrne restored our 3-point lead.
We managed to clear our lines from the next restart but there were more needless errors to come from Benetton as Monty Ioane hit Hugo Keenan milliseconds before he took a mark which allowed us to clear to halfway and shortly after the lineout, our first chance to put the ball through the backs was thwarted by a deliberate knock on by Tavuyara which saw him probably rightly sent to the naughty step.
The frustrating thing about that for Benetton fans (as well as those aboard The Loose Head’s famous “bandwagon bus”) was that the winger could have easily gone for the ball with two hands, in which case the outcome would have swung from putting his side a man down to scoring a try under our posts.
But the stop/start-ing wasn’t done there. We couldn’t take advantage of the lineout from the penalty and after the home side finally had the chance to show off their impressive mauling technique, a lineout at halfway became another kickable penalty chance for Garbisi and the sides were level.
And the mistakes kept on coming. Another knock on from the restart, this time by Halafihi, gave us another attacking scrum, and while this one gave us possession, it wasn’t long before their number 8 was involved again as he took out Jamison Gibson-Park to give us another kickable penalty.
But skipper for the day Garry Ringrose clearly saw this as an opportunity to avail of the extra man and had it put to the corner, and after Ryan Baird took a clean catch, hooker James Tracy gathered it at the back of a maul which ground its way to the line before he was able to put it down. Might be some question marks over Gibson-Park’s involvement but the ref was happy, so I was too.
I guess the reason I went into such painstaking detail for that opening quarter was to illustrate the amount of mistakes Benetton shipped in that time - the penalties could perhaps being forgiven due to increased physicality to get an edge over the champions but when added to the knock ons and the yellow card they might consider themselves lucky to be only seven points down at this stage.
There were definitely more chances to play rugby in the second quarter, but that didn’t mean the game was to continue flowing. The most bizarre sequence came after Larmour knocked on after a big hit and Benetton won a free kick from the resulting scrum. Their 9 and skipper Dewaldt Duvenage tried to quick tap but couldn’t hold on to the ball giving us a put in, and together with resets there was about 5m gone on the clock before things got going again.
Despite their error count continuing to climb, the home side were next to score. On last week’s podcast I chatted to Big Joe Shep about Jamison Gibson-Park and how he plays so well without box-kicking; naturally the Rugby Gods weren’t going to be having that and when he did one from his own half, the play somehow ended up back near our own line with Benetton’s chasers earning a penalty.
Finally they had a chance to practise their impressive mauling technique from close range, something which reaped decent rewards against us in last season’s Champions Cup. Again this was a scrappy sequence of set-pieces, but is was our turn to be over-eager and after shipping a few penalties, James Ryan found himself in the sin bin and eventually it was a scrum that led to them getting to our line before an outstretched arm from flanker Sebastian Negri got it over the line.
Just like that the scores were level again, with a decent amount of the yellow card time left, but we were now in Leinster’s sweet spot just before half time where we tend to find another gear and this was no exception.
First a stab forward by Ringrose put their fullback Heyward under pressure winning us an attacking lineout. From here despite being a man down ourselves we started to find gaps up the middle of the Treviso defence and after some good crash ball got us into their 22, it was Ringrose again involved on one of his mazy runs getting us close to the line only for Ed Byrne to spill the offload.
But Benetton couldn’t clear their lines and when we just about escaped from a choke tackle at the 22, Gibson-Park was able to put James Lowe through and there was no stopping him. That seven points was a killer blow just before the break.
Things continued to progress in an unorthodox fashion in the second half. When Benetton earned another attacking lineout deep in our 22, we looked to have sacked it only it was a group that didn’t have the ball so the one that did sheared away and got to the line for hooker Falva to get the score.
Garbisi did impress with the ball throughout the match when he had the chance, but he was a little lax with his placekicking and after almost missing the earlier conversion, Keenan and Larmour did enough in charging down this one to force him to push it wide - yet another costly mistake by the hosts.
Sadly that was to be Larmour’s final big contribution on the night as shortly afterwards he seemed to hurt his right arm badly in a tackle, no doubt ending his chances of involvement in Ireland’s Six Nations matches to come, and he had to be replaced by Jimmy O’Brien. Still, we were able to respond to the conceded score yet again, leading to a try that came from what I called at the time a “very Ben Whitehouse decision”.
This time we got into their 22 thanks to a Gibson-Park box-kick that reaped some reward. The chase and counter-ruck were perfect and we not only won back possession, but also another penalty which was put to the corner. From there we seemed to be heading for the tryline but an uncharacteristic spill from James Ryan gave Benetton a chance to clear, though our scrum had other ideas.
Having brought on front row subs in Cian Healy and Sean Cronin any team would love to have on their bench, first we won ourselves a penalty against the head and once more we made a wise decision when we opted for another one to press home the advantage. We got another good nudge and Jack Conan was doing some great work keeping it in until we inched closer and closer to the line until…
Um, something happened?
In real time everyone thought Conan had gotten the score yet with each look at the replay it seemed less likely that he had applied downward pressure and more likely that he had knocked it on. After many many looks, the referee went to tell Duvenage his decision. Good news, it was knocked on. Bad news, your pack’s scrummaging was illegal so I’m awarding a penalty try anyway.
I always remember Whitehouse going out of his way to award a PT against Connacht when even the opposition Munster fans though it was a stretch. This wasn’t exactly a crazy ruling, but the way he went about it created a lot of confusion which could have been avoided if he just made the PT call straight away without all the looks at the replay, which surely weren’t needed.
Anyway - that gave us a nine-point advantage, one that was stretched to 12 a few minutes later after Keenan and Luke McGrath combined well to get into their 22 before the scrambling Benetton defence allowed Ross Byrne another shot at goal.
Full credit to the home side for not giving up and when James Ryan was pinged for his tackle slipping up high (having watched the sequence again I wonder if he was nursing a “stinger” in that arm from an earlier challenge) they were able to set up another maul in our 22 and again it led to a try this time by sub hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi.
Now another Treviso try could take them from zero match points to five, but we weren’t having any of that and the next sequence was arguably our best of the night. Ross Byrne probably got Player of the Match for his goal kicking but I’d tack on this restart as the hang time was absolutely perfect for his chasers to earn an attacking lineout. From here we eased our way to the line before sub Ross Molony got it over making sure we were the ones destined for a 5-point haul.
Treviso still had the consolation of two bonus points to chase if they could pinch a late try for themselves but not for the first time in the post-lockdown era, Leinster’s bench were extremely well-drilled without the ball and despite going to 85 minutes that was all the scoring done for the night.
I am of course happy with the result even if we probably didn’t learn too much from such an unusual 80 minutes. Hopefully the injuries aren’t too bad and we can continue this winning run when Zebre come to Ballsbridge in two weeks’ time.
Between now and then, we’ll be turning our attention to the resumption of the Six Nations so stay tuned for a special podcast during the week where I’ll hope to have all four proud provinces represented. Once again I seem to have somehow managed to harp on a not-too-exciting encounter for 2000 words, thanks for sticking with me for the duration. JLP