‘It was a great experience for a lot of our guys’: Cullen extracts the positives

Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS

A PECULIAR TWO-WEEK period in Leinster’s season, and in a peculiar way Leo Cullen’s side can take a number of positives from a home draw with Benetton, even if they let victory slip with the concession of a last-gasp try when the clock was in the red.   

With a home semi-final already assured and many of the front-line internationals wrapped up in cotton wool, Leinster apparently had nothing tangible to play for here, but a young side — the average age of which was 25 — showed immense fight and character.

Leinster huddle at the end of last night’s game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

They will be disappointed to let Benetton have the last word of an absorbing contest, as the Italians retained the ball for 30 phases to earn a share of the spoils at the death, but it was no more than Kieran Crowley’s deserved for their endeavours. 

The visitors brought unrelenting physicality and were powerful in the loose, with the likes of Sebastian Negri and Abraham Steyn huge buttresses and primary ball carriers, who were rarely grounded in the first collision.

The speed of the Benetton ball, coupled with scrum-half Dewaldt Duvenage’s delivery and Tommaso Allan’s play-making, forced Leinster’s defence to get through huge work, often scrambling to repel wave-after-wave of green attack.

Four players — Scott Penny, Max Deegan, Caelan Doris and Jack Dunne — all made 25+ tackles throughout and in an otherwise disjointed and scrappy performance, there was absolutely no questioning the Leinster effort, hunger or desire. 

After losing Josh Murphy before kick-off, and enduring further disruption during the first half when Noel Reid and Mick Kearney were forced off, Leinster went into the break trailing by seven points, before re-emerging with more urgency and attacking abandon.

They were rewarded through second-half tries from James Lowe, Bryan Byrne and Ciarán Frawley to enter the final throes 27-20 to the good, only for Ratuva Tavuyara’s dancing feet in the far corner and Allan’s clutch conversion. 

“I thought it was a really good contest and you could see how much it means to Benetton, it’s a point more than what got this time last year against them,” Leo Cullen said afterwards, referencing his side’s shock defeat to the Italians here 12 months ago. 

“I thought our guys, after dealing with some of the first-half disruptions when we lost a couple of players, you lose your 10 and your lineout caller, we were trying to adjust and we had a lot of young guys coming in as well.”

No doubt it was a physically bruising encounter for Leinster, and there will certainly be a lot of sore bodies this morning, but the hosts can take great credit from the way they defended their line with such conviction and desperation for long periods. 

Benetton enjoyed 63% possession and 68% territory and their game-plan is based on breaking the gain-line at every opportunity through the power and grunt of their forwards. Twice they scored after long, multi-phase passages of bish-bosh rugby, Leinster simply unable to stem the onslaught. 

“We struggled to put it all together in the first half generally and Benetton are a tough team to play against because they’re big and physical,” Cullen continued.

“They held onto the ball well and made life uncomfortable for us. But in the second half, I thought the effort from our guys was really good. You could see how much it meant to them and it was a big chance for a lot of guys.

Max Deegan was MOTM. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“They fought hard and got themselves back in the lead so it’s disappointing to give away a try at the very end. We didn’t quite deal with lots of chaos, that’s probably the best way to describe it, but Benetton definitely deserved something out of the game. A draw? A fair enough result.”

Deegan was awarded the man of the match award but Frawley was equally impressive off the bench after replacing Reid in the first half. He scored 14 points, including a neat set-play try which involved Conor O’Brien’s no-look pass and Joe Tomane’s smart decoy line. The replacement out-half arched through and slid for the posts. 

19-year-old Penny stood out too for his tireless work-rate on both sides of the ball after being promoted from the bench when Murphy pulled out through illness, while Dunne played 60 minutes on his fourth senior appearance. That he made 28 tackles in that time is a reflection of Leinster’s defensive effort.

“It was a great experience for a lot of our guys to understand what it’s like at this level,” Cullen added. “Scott Penny was in school this time last year, Ciarán Frawley hadn’t played a huge amount and this is another layer on his experience. Jack Dunne coming on in the second row and playing 60 minutes.

“It was tough out there for our guys. When you get to 27-20, you would just like to be able to close the game out. Again, it was a good experience for our guys, and even the ones who came on later in the game.  

Leinster’s attention now turns to next Saturday’s Pro14 visit of Glasgow Warriors to Dublin, and while Kearney and Reid will be assessed tomorrow, the province hope to have both Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner back for the round 20 game. 

The pair, neither of whom have played since Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to England, took a full part in last night’s warm-up and are expected to make their respective injury comebacks next Saturday, a week out from the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse.

“Robbie and Dev both did the warm-up today so hopefully they’ll come into the mix,” Cullen said. “We expect them to feature at some stage next week and, yeah, we’ve a ton of guys who will come back into the mix for selection.

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“Glasgow will be tough, I watched their game last night against Ulster, and were very comprehensive in winning that game. They’re a very aggressive team. We know it’s going to be a very tough encounter for us but it should be a good warm-up going into the week after.” 

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