Leinster ring the changes but continue winning ways
By Daire Walsh
FOLLOWING the high of their European Rugby Champions Cup success over Saracens, Leinster got back to basics in the Guinness PRO14 on Saturday afternoon.
With a much-changed starting team, the Blues secured a bonus-point victory (41-6) against Michael Bradley’s Zebre at the RDS. Though there are two games remaining in the regular season, Leinster are already assured of a quarter-final place at the very least.
They currently hold a four-point buffer over second-place Scarlets – their upcoming opponents in the Champions Cup last-four. Should they remain in pole position in Conference B, Leo Cullen’s men will receive a bye into the PRO14 semi-finals.
From the side that dethroned Sarries at the Aviva Stadium on Easter Sunday, James Lowe was the only player to retain his spot in the Leinster back line. Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner (captaining the province for the very first time) and Dan Leavy started their second game in the space of six days in the forward pack, while there was a debut off the bench for exciting back Gavin Mullin.
James Tracy was handed his ninth start of the campaign in the front-row, and he was joined in the side by fellow Kill native Adam Byrne. The former Naas CBS student has enjoyed some memorable appearances against the Italians in the past.
In the calendar year of 2016, Byrne scored five tries in three wins at the expense of Zebre – including a magnificent hat-trick in a November PRO12 triumph. However, it was the in-form Lowe who got the ball rolling on this occasion with a converted try on 12 minutes.
Heavy rainfall made it difficult for Leinster to cut loose in front of a home crowd of 10,115 and a Carlo Canna penalty helped the visitors to narrow the gap. The Blues remained in control of their own destiny nonetheless – a Rory O’Loughlin five-pointer giving them a 12-3 interval cushion.
A brace of Max Deegan scores after the break ensured that the Blues would come away with maximum points, while Lowe touched down in the 68th-minute to make it nine tries in just 10 caps for the New Zealander.
It had turned into a damage limitation exercise for a demoralised Zebre, whose line was subsequently breached by replacement front-rows Vakh Abdaladze and Bryan Byrne in the closing stages.
Elsewhere, Craig Ronaldson (Ballymore Eustace) contributed seven points in Connacht’s heavy defeat (39-10) to Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium on Friday night.
There was disappointment for the Ireland Men’s 7s in Hong Kong at the weekend, as their semi-final reversal to Japan saw them missing out on a place in next year’s World Series.
Naas’ Billy Dardis was the Ireland captain for this World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier tournament, with Jimmy O’Brien of Eadestown also amongst the travelling party. They played prominent roles in victories against Cook Islands, Jamaica, Uruguay and Zimbabwe, before the Green Army fell short in the penultimate round.