Leinster ‘A’ had already booked a home British & Irish Cup quarter-final before kick-off, but an impressively second half rally from Doncaster Knights saw them hand the province their first defeat of the season.
Doncaster overcame a 13-point half-time deficit to join Pool 2 winners Leinster ‘A’ in the quarter-finals, progressing to the knockout stages as one of the best runners-up.
The hosts’ strong starting line-up was an indication of how seriously they were taking the Doncaster challenge, as Ireland internationals Noel Reid and Michael Bent were selected at inside centre and tighthead prop respectively. There were also roles for fellow first-team players like Barry Daly, Nick McCarthy, Ed Byrne, Mick Kearney and Ian Nagle.
Doncaster’s sense of purpose raised the possibility of a free-flowing encounter at Donnybrook. However, when the visitors broke the deadlock in the seventh minute, it was from a well-executed lineout move at the Bective end of the ground.
Ben Hunter’s lineout found its way into the hands of prop Joe Sproston who was able to drve over the whitewash from close range. Simon Humberstone’s tricky conversion drifted wide of the left hand post, and although this was an early setback for Noel McNamara’s charges, Doncaster’s lead was a short-lived one.
After they made initial headway on the right wing, Leinster ‘A’ moved play into midfield and centre Gavin Mullin broke through a gap for a well-taken try, converted by out-half Ciaran Frawley.
Doncaster regained the lead with a routine Humberstone penalty on 14 minutes, only to be pegged back once again by an increasingly confident Leinster ‘A’ attack. With twin brother Bryan featuring from the bench in the senior side’s Champions Cup success in Montpellier, Ed Byrne was itching to make an impression.
The all-action loosehead assumed the role of team captain from the absent Cathal Marsh, and he brilliantly sidestepped a Doncaster tackle to race through for an outstanding score underneath the posts.
Frawley added the extras, and with 23 minutes on the clock, Leinster ‘A’ put further daylight between themselves and the English Championship outfit. Scrum half McCarthy profited from some forward pressure, including a scrum penalty, to dive over from a few metres out.
Frawley added his third conversion of the half, as Leinster ‘A’ edged a step closer to their sixth try-scoring bonus point of the campaign. Yet, with former Ulster scrum half Michael Heaney showing plenty of industry – and ex-Munster out-half Declan Cusack also part of the visitors’ squad – Doncaster kept within touching distance of the two-time champions.
Trailing 21-8, the Yorkshire men were a reinvigorated outfit at the start of the second half, and they were camped inside the Leinster ‘A’ 22 for an extended spell after the restart.
Second row Nagle was sent to the sin-bin as the pressure increased on the Leinster ‘A’ try-line, and after he was deemed to have knocked on an attempted pass towards winger Tyson Lewis deliberately, full-back Daly also received a yellow card.
This resulted in a penalty try for Doncaster, which reduced their deficit to six points. With 13 players on the pitch for a temporary period, it was all hands to the pump for Leinster ‘A’. Indeed, with space appearing inside the opposition half, Doncaster full-back Paul Jarvis raced over at the end of a lung-bursting run.
Humberstone’s wayward conversion saw Leinster ‘A’ holding onto a 21-20 advantage, and with Nagle and Daly returning to the fold just past the hour mark, they had an opportunity to regroup and push on for the remainder.
Yet, a highly-motivated Doncaster continued to pose a significant threat, and within the space of eight minutes, the outlook of the game changed completely. A superb carry by replacement flanker Adam Batt had Leinster ‘A’ on the back-foot, and his neat offload saw Junior Bulumakau touch down on 70 minutes.
Humberstone’s first successful conversion followed and he then split the posts with a 72nd-minute penalty for 30-21. Knights now had a bonus point triumph in their sights, and skipper Matt Challinor put the outcome beyond doubt with a neat finish to the right of the posts.
There was enough time for Leinster ‘A’ to claim a late try-scoring bonus point try of their own through Sean McNulty from a lineout drive. Replacement Harry Byrne, younger brother of Ross, converted as the province now wait for confirmation of their quarter-final opponents.
REFEREE: Mike English (WRU)