James Lowe had a debut to remember in Leinster blue as he chipped in with two tries and an assist in the province’s 36-10 bonus point victory away to Benetton Rugby.
Man-of-the-match Lowe opened his Leinster account with a 16th-minute score from captain Luke McGrath’s pass, with the scrum half also setting up Jordi Murphy’s try eight minutes before half-time at Stadio di Monigo.
The visitors led 17-3 at the interval, with Ross Byrne kicking the other points in response to Tommaso Allan’s eighth-minute opener off the tee. Leinster dominated the second quarter and Josh van der Flier was held up just before referee David Wilkinson’s half-time whistle.
The Italians got back into contention with a Juan Nacho Brex try before the hour mark, but Leo Cullen’s men controlled the final quarter with further scores from Garry Ringrose, on his return from shoulder surgery, skipper McGrath and Lowe capping off a runaway victory.
The result sees Leinster keep hold of second place in Conference B of the GUINNESS PRO14, with the Scarlets now only three points ahead after losing away to the Toyota Cheetahs. It also maintains the province’s winning momentum ahead of the back-to-back Champions Cup clashes with Exeter Chiefs.
Italy international Allan split the posts to punish an initial scrum offence by Andrew Porter before the Leinster pack were guilty of walking it around. It was the only time Benetton led in the entire game.
The returning van der Flier was prominent in defence early on, making one bone-crunching tackle which forced a knock-on, but it took a while for newcomer Lowe to hit his stride after a couple of early errors.
Referee Wilkinson’s whistle was regularly blown during a stop-start first quarter, but Leinster built momentum via strong carries from props Porter and Jack McGrath, and after a penalty to the corner set up a lineout maul, Luke McGrath broke to the left to send Lowe over past the covering defender.
Byrne added the extras from the left wing for a 7-3 lead and then put seven points between the sides at the end of a prolonged attacking spell from the visitors, during which Noel Reid, Byrne and Lowe all attempted grubber kicks to split the Benetton defence.
A Scott Fardy lineout steal kept Leinster on the front foot with the penalties beginning to stack up against Benetton, including a Cherif Traore shoulder charge on Byrne which led to the latter’s 25th-minute penalty goal.
Flanker Murphy took a great line just past the half hour mark, coming from deep to hurtle onto a Luke McGrath pass, break a tackle and score to the left of the posts. Byrne converted and he also flung a last-minute penalty towards the left corner, however van der Flier was thwarted by Benetton’s robust defence on their line.
Kieran Crowley’s charges had the better of the third quarter, gradually getting into scoring range. Robert Barbieri had a try ruled out for a knock-on, but a Reid high tackle allowed Benetton to set up camp close to the Leinster line, working through a series of pick-and-goes before centre Brex barged in under the posts with 56 minutes on the clock.
Allan’s conversion closed the gap to 17-10, only for Leinster to mount an excellent response. Lowe darted up the left wing and had good support from Jordan Larmour, Fardy went close to scoring before Byrne’s bullet-like pass put Ringrose stepping in off the right touchline to dot down close to the posts.
Byrne’s conversion was preceded by a yellow card for Brex, who was singled out for a no-arms tackle in the build-up. Leinster got in behind Benetton again just four minutes later to bag the bonus point. Ringrose freed up his hands in a tackle to release Lowe over halfway and he passed back inside for McGrath to finish off, carrying a defender with him over the whitewash – 29-10.
A Lowe-inspired attack set the wheels in motion for a fifth and final try, with 12 minutes remaining. Lineout possession was moved wide with Reid’s long pass putting Lowe in a one-on-one with Marty Banks and he beat his fellow Kiwi to dive over in the left corner.
Byrne’s well-struck conversion put 26 points between the sides and that is how it remained up to full-time, with Cullen giving Clontarf prop Vakh Abdaladze his debut on the 70-minute mark. A late scrum penalty would have pleased both Abdaladze and the watching coaches.