It has been a gradual process returning to normalcy since the COVID disruption, let alone Leinster matches, but this particular occasion has been the closest we’ve come yet to what we’re used to in terms of percentage capacity.
All due respect to our Italian opponents, but a home date with Zebre, particularly with a lunchtime kickoff, never exactly jumped off the calendar at you in pre-pandemic times, so to see the total numbers over 10k for this one was really good to see.
However when came to the actual atmosphere, it would seem that cheering for the boys in blue isn’t much like riding a bike because to say the crowd was “subdued” throughout would be an understatement. The most telling evidence of this was after Sean Cronin went over in the corner for the 5th try.
You see, proper rugby supporter etiquette dictates that when the home team is having a try looked at by the TMO and the replays are being shown on the big screen, everyone is meant to cheer like crazy at the moment of touchdown whether it looks like a try has been scored or not. And for the first few replays, you could almost hear a pin drop around the RDS.
But when it came to the fourth look, there it was. Now to be clear, it turned out to be a try after all, but you could sense the irony in the cheers - and for me anyway, it was great to hear because that’s all part of the craic and I have no doubt the sounds are bound to be a lot more “raucous” when the sea of blue gets another go at it next Saturday against the Scarlets.
And in defence of the Leinster faithful, considering the memory of last Sunday in Newport was fresh in the mind and there were long periods when it looked like we brought many of those gremlins home with us despite the 13 changes to starting personnel, there were some reasons to be quiet. But that was only after what could only be described as a perfect start that made it look like there was going to be more than enough to shout about.
You really couldn’t have scripted it better to settle in the home crowd. Zebre kick off towards the South Stand, a decent high exit kick by Luke McGrath, pressure from the chasing runners leading to a penalty for obstruction, and then Harry Byrne plants a sweet touchfinder well into their 22 setting up a scoring opportunity before the clock hit the two minute mark.
Who else but Devin Toner to pluck Sean Cronin’s dart out of the air, and who else but Scott Penny to be the one crashing over after a set of phases. With the bookies having set a points spread of 37 and this blogger having set a target for us to smash it, things really looked like we were well on our way.
But there was a sign in Harry’s conversion that the sailing wasn’t to be quite so plain and it started right of the posts and kept on going. Then there was another sign as a lineout in a similar attacking position went awry as the dart to Toner was both anticipated and pinched. Still, on the next set piece down that end of the park, the throw was good, the maul got us to the line, and this time it was Jordan Larmour of all people taking it the rest of the way so now we were back on track, right?
Meh, not quite, as Harry’s conversion, from a very similar position, had a very similar result, and a few minutes later as he tried to avail of yet another penalty opportunity to set us up in their 22 again, the kick went too long and we had to go back for a scrum.
Despite the early lead it certainly wasn’t the ideal return from injury for Harry, although you had to assume a full 55-65 minute shift would have given him enough time to work out all the kinks, especially with good support around him like a strong back row trio of Leavy (another returnee), Penny & Ruddock, plus Luke McGrath at 9.
Unfortunately for him, a “tackle” from Zebre 6 Iacopo Bianchi around the 21 minute mark (which easily deserved the inverted commas due to lack of wrap) left the young outhalf unable to continue, which meant we had to look to whoever we had in reserve to take us the rest of the way home. Luckily for us it was a certain Mr J Sexton wearing that 22 jersey!
Now it’s important to be clear - it’s not like the tries started flowing from the second he came on, in fact it was far from it. Like I feared pre-match, Zebre had clearly paid attention to what the Dragons had been doing to our attack patterns the previous week and without penalties to get us into their 22, the space wasn’t always easy to create.
I mean it’s not like we were unaware of the problem and it was clear the plan was to bypass onrushing defenders with miss passes and quick hands among centres Ciaran Frawley and Jamie Osborne, yet time and time again throughout the third quarter our attempts to add to our lead failed and I have to admit as half time got nearer, thoughts of a possible Newport repeat were starting to creep into my brain.
But when a deliberate knockon at midfield gave us one last lineout in their 22 before the break, the set piece to Toner clicked allowing a nice interaction between Penny and Osborne (two of the youngest on the pitch) setting us up to ship it wide to Adam Byrne who marked his own return to action with a try.
Now I don’t want to be too hard on Harry, but I really do think Sexton needs some mitigation for his own conversion miss here, although I’m pretty sure the club skipper wouldn’t accept it himself. Not only was this placekick on the “wrong” touchline for a right-footer but it also had him staring straight into the sun which at this time must have been taunting him from right above the goalposts.
All of which meant we went “into the sheds” with a 15-0 lead, which although coaches always tell you that’s a margin you want in rugby, didn’t really feel like it reflected the 40 minutes we had just watched. Although the Italians were doing what they could to thwart us, it was our own lack of accuracy that was holding us back.
What we really needed was to come out for the second half armed with a few tactical tweaks here and there plus the mental resolve to get them done to the standards of accuracy the 10k crowd remembered witnessing before the lockdown. And just like the first half, it only took us two minutes to get the scoreboard moving.
Again it was from a lineout, then it was the quick hands to get past the first up tacklers. Finally strong carrying from the pack got us within 5m and although Cronin brought back further memories of the previous week with a knock on as the line beckoned, we had a penalty advantage in our back pocket and shortly after the tap n go, Ed Byrne racked up the crucial bonus point, with the extras finally being tacked on by Sexton.
I think I may have said “again from a lineout” in enough ways so maybe I should jump ahead and point out that all seven of our tries on the day had their origins in the set piece. Cronin’s in the corner that got checked by the TMO was also a result of relentless pressure around the line, and just after the Zebre outhalf Antonio Rizzi was binned for a “beyond the horizontal” tackle on Sexton, he replied by using a penalty advantage from the lineout to plant a superb crossfield kick onto Adam Byrne’s chest allowing him to get his second.
So that was three Leinster tries in the opening ten minutes of the half and since Zebre’s sin bin period had only just begun, it really looked as though the scores would keep on coming. But then the yips came back again. Adam should have had his hat trick after we finally looked like creating space for a try off something other than a lineout only for Jimmy O’Brien’s final pass to find touch rather than his winger.
More opportunities went a begging in this spell, but one positive was a couple of lineout steals from Ryan Baird, who I thought was the pick of our forwards on the day after he suffered from knockonitis more than most off the bench the previous week. As well as the persistent pilfering he had numerous strong carries and might have been in the frame for Player of the Match had he notched up a score into the bargain.
Finally after Cian Healy helped earn what seems like his 50th penalty on the tight head side of the scrum, there we were back in the 22 with a lineout with a Toner catch, a surging maul, and this time it was Ronán Kelleher marking his own return with a score and with Sexton now knocking them over from in front of the Laighin Pit for fun, we got ourselves within touching distance of the “fifty-burger”.
But credit to our visitors, they weren’t for giving up and when Nick McCarthy spilled the ball after being tackled at halfway, Zebre quickly spotted the opportunity in transition and after shipping it out wide where we had a few forwards hoping to bring the ball in the opposite direction, their winger Pierre Bruno was able to find a crushing line from his own half to finally break their duck.
One important thing to note about this Zebre try is that it was the first time our line has been breached in the “history” of the United Rugby Championship, and with all the negativity surrounding our attacking so far in this campaign, the same certainly cannot be said about the standards of our defending.
Zebre continued to have decent attempts at adding to their score before the end but we just about managed to keep them at bay as the final ten minutes or so really fizzled out without too much further incident.
Sexton scooped the PotM gong courtesy of another legendary Ireland skipper Fiona Coughlan in the RTÉ commentary booth. I might have leaned towards Adam Byrne to help celebrate his return but in reality it is hard to argue that Johnny’s introduction made a significant difference to the proceedings.
And where does that leave us? Well not without concerns, that is for sure. Obviously it’s great to know the defensive systems remain solid and that when we have the right accuracy with the ball, the scores will come. But it has to be said that when the bigger matches come down the line (not just in April/May, there’s also a decent block on the schedule facing us in December) we have to be more clinical otherwise we’ll find ourself chasing matches a lot more than we’d like.
Still, you do have to remember that this Leinster squad has a lot of players returning to the lineup for various reasons, some like Adam Byrne and Dan Leavy have been on long injury layoffs, then Kelleher was with the Lions, McCarthy was at some other province, etc, etc and it’s going to take a while for us to bed in properly. I think we should get a better sense of where the team is at from a season-wide perspective when the Heineken Champions Cup rolls around again.
That Irish Shield table still doesn’t look too good from where we’re standing as that BP we left on Welsh shores continues to haunt us but we have to be ready to pounce should those great sides ahead of us slip up and you know they’ll be looking over their shoulders so that alone promises to make this a memorable season.
Be sure and keep an eye out for this week's episode of The Harpin On Rugby Podcast where I'll be chatting to two fellow Leinster fans about our start to the season so far, looking at some of the stand out individuals in the process.
And as for the RDS fans, well like I said they may not have made a whole lot of noise during the match but still the buzz around the ground both before and after the match was great to see and long may it continue for the rest of the campaign, starting next Saturday evening of course. For all the harping I do on these pages trying to set the scene for my readers, it can’t really come close to actually being there on match days. JLP