Leinster 43 Zebre 7
Leinster duly completed arguably the most predictable bonus point win of their season on a relatively low-key return for the first sizeable crowd at the RDS since February 2019.
It was always likely that the TV-dictated lunchtime kick-off and this clear miss-match would ensure a relatively subdued occasion, and the routine win didn’t come without a cost.
As the Zebre flanker Iacopo Bianchi shot out of the line around half-way in the 22nd minute, Harry Byrne turned sideways into the hit, catching it on his right hip and lower back.
After treatment, he was forced to leave the pitch, as was the case in his last start against Munster in April in front of the watching Andy Farrell, who once more would have had particular eyes for the 22-year-old.
That said, the introduction of Johnny Sexton was a reminder that he remains the class act among Ireland’s array of available outhalves.
Varying his game between taking the ball to the line and using his trademark wrap, Sexton effectively took Zebre’s all-or-nothing blitz defence and use of shooters out of the equation.
As in the opening win over the Bulls, there was again a striking willingness to keep the ball off the ground with tip-on passes, and by ball-carriers and support players to move the ball out of the tackle even in heavy traffic.
Another plus was the return of Adam Byrne for his first game in 22 months after enduring a serious hamstring injury and ensuing setbacks. He marked his return with a busy performance and a brace of tries, popularly acclaimed by teammates and supporters alike.
As encouragingly, Dan Leavy augmented his athletic return last week with a strong 50-minute showing in what was only his fifth start since that horrific knee injury against Ulster in March 2019.
Nonetheless, it tells as much that Leinster again left tries behind which, at their best, they’d have taken. Against that, Michael Bradley and Zebre can take solace from a spirited showing, even finishing the scoring and the stronger.
In particular, the 20-year-olds, tighthead Ion Neculai and debutant openside Luca Andreani, look like Azzurri stars of the future.
Leinster weren’t long in getting the tries rolling. Harry Byrne found a huge touch from the game’s first penalty with not much of an angle and they went through sustained phases – the highlight being a flicked one-handed pass off the deck by Luke McGrath which was caught one-handed by Scott Penny – before the latter burrowed over for his 17th try in just 30 games for his province.
Having scored from only one of 16 entries into the Dragons’ 22 last week, Leinster were up and running from their first this week, albeit Andrea Zambonin picked off Sean Cronin’s throw from their next entry, as he did with Cronin’s third throw.
Playing safe with their next lineout, Cronin hit Leavy at the front to generate some maul momentum before Jordan Larmour marked his return by using his footwork and strength to wriggle through three flimsy tackles to score. Again though, Harry Byrne missed the conversion.
One sensed the becalmed home crowd were already feeling some sympathy for the injury hit, entirely changed and outclassed Italian visitors. Yet, from there, the anticipated miss-match didn’t immediately unfold as expected.
The procession of naïvely conceded penalties at ruck time didn’t help the Parma outfit, although Harry Byrne overcooked his next penalty to the corner.
The young Leinster outhalf had endured a mixed start in coping with Zebre’s shooters and outside-in defence, but much more frustratingly for him, that hit by Bianchi ended his day prematurely.
Penny was held up over the line by the industrious Zambonin for a goal-line drop out, Baird was pinged for not releasing after good work in the jackal by Renato Giammarioli and when McGrath scooped up a loose ball and scampered downfield, Sexton clearly cleaned out from the side.
Antonio Rizzi was short with a penalty from halfway before Sexton looped behind Ciarán Frawley as first receiver for Adam Byrne to break out from a scrum inside the 22.
As the sun came out, their ambition was soon rewarded. From direct carrying, lastly by Leavy, and quick recycling, Sexton again wrapped behind Ed Byrne’s deft pull back to put Adam Byrne over with a double skip pass. Sexton miscued the touchline conversion to leave it 15-0 at the break.
Even so, with Sexton on the field, Leinster were finding the edges, a reprise of the pre-interval move, with Frawley checking the drift as first receiver, before Sexton moved it wide for Jimmy O’Brien to give Larmour a run.
After lovely hands by Sexton and Jamie Osborne to Toner, Cronin lost the ball in diving for the line before his quick tap led to Ed Byrne driving over for the bonus point.
A big carry by Leavy soon led to Cronin finally scoring in the corner from McGrath’s blindside pass. Sexton even landed the touchline conversion, but he was soon dumped illegally by Rizzi, who was yellow carded.
Dusting himself off, Sexton gift-wrapped a second for Adam Byrne off the ensuing line-out with a pitch perfect crosskick and landed the conversion.
There was no let-up for Zebre. A quintet of hungry Leinster replacements, including Rónan Kelleher’s first game in 13 weeks, and in Rizzi’s absence, scrumhalf Nicolo Casilio sent the restart out on the full.
After a stunning line and offload by Rhys Ruddock, Leinster left another try behind. But after another lull in proceedings, the pack went to work at first scrum time and then maul time for Kelleher to power over for his 10th try in 26 games for Leinster. Sexton landed another sweetly struck touchline conversion.
Zebre did stem the flow when using turnover ball from Giovanni Licata’s hit on Nick McCarthy to move the ball wide for winger Pierre Bruno to finish sharply from almost halfway after a show and go.
That put a pep in their step, and they even came searching for more. Leinster will have tougher tests, possibly every time they play again this season, but job done.
Scoring sequence: 2 mins – Penny try 5-0; 13 mins – Larmour try, H Byrne con 10-0; 39 mins – A Byrne try 15-0; 43 mins – E Byrne try, Sexton con 22-0; 46 mins – Cronin try, Sexton con 29-0; 49 mins – A Byrne try, Sexton con 36-0; 64 mins – Kelleher try, Sexton con 43-0; 67 mins – Bruno try, Pescetto con 43-7.
Leinster: Jimmy O’Brien; Adam Byrne, Jamie Osborne, Ciarán Frawley, Jordan Larmour; Harry Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Ed Byrne, Seán Cronin, Michael Ala’alatoa; Ryan Baird, Devin Toner; Dan Leavy, Scott Penny, Rhys Ruddock.
Replacements: Johnny Sexton for H Byrne (23 mins), Rónan Kelleher for Cronin, Peter Dooley for E Byrne, Cian Healy for Ala’alatoa, Max Deegan for Leavy, Rob Russell for Frawley (all 51 mins), Nick McCarthy for McGrath (56 mins), Ross Molony for Penny (71 mins).
Zebre Parma: Jacopo Trulla; Pierre Bruno, Erich Cronje, Enrico Lucchin, Mattia Bellin; Antonio Rizzi, Nicolo Casilio; Andrea Lovotti, Oliviero Fabiani (capt), Ion Neculai; Cristian Stoian, Andrea Zambonin; Iacopo Bianchi, Luca Andreani, Renato Giammarioli.
Replacements: Paolo Pescetto for Bianhi (53 mins), Massimo Ceciliani for Fabiani, Danilo Fischetti for Lovotti, Matteo Nocera for Neculai (all 56 mins), Giovanni Licata for Rizzi (58 mins), David Sisi for Stoian (62 mins), Tommaso Boni for Andreani (73 mins). Sinbinned: Antonio Rizzi (48-58 mins).
Referee: Sam Grove-White (SRU).