Just a short walk separates the RDS from the Aviva Stadium’s back pitch in Dublin, but the approximate 950-metre distance would have felt like a million miles on Saturday for one pair of Leinster brothers.
Cian Kelleher’s return to the native province was widely trumpeted at the start of 2019, the 25-year-old believing it was the right time for him to come home after earning his stripes during three productive years at Connacht.
Thing is, if he stayed in Galway he would more than likely have been in the mix for Connacht’s Champions Cup start at home to Montpellier on Sunday.
Instead, rather than being part of Leinster’s latest start to a European campaign, their five-try 33-19 dismissal of a plucky Benetton, Kelleher was on low-key All-Ireland League club duty with Lansdowne who fell to a sullen 0-7 home defeat to Young Munster.
All the more curious for the winger, who has made just a single PRO14 start for Leinster since his return to Dublin, his younger brother Ronan continued to enjoy his meteoric rise to prominence by scoring on his European debut, a 30th minute try being the 21-year-old’s seventh score in six outings this term.
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It’s the sort of ravenous form that could even catapult him into the frame for Ireland consideration ahead of the 2020 Six Nations due to skipper Rory Best’s retirement and Sean Cronin’s injury lay-off.
Kelleher breezily looked the part at the RDS. His efficient lineout throwing was backed up not only by a healthy tackle count that reached double figures during his 56 minutes, he also highlighted how is key another of this new breed of ball-playing front rowers. A neat offload out of contact when running a defensive line some minutes after his try illustrated he has the hands to match his heft.
Cronin’s injury has opened the door for Kelleher to keep on thriving this winter, but his European debut was in sharp contrast to the fortunes of another European novice Caelan Doris, his former Ireland under-20s colleague. Doris is another highly regarded talent but he was unable to similarly look the part in his first European start in the No8 shirt left vacant by Jack Conan’s World Cup injury.
Doris had the misery of hanging around for just 16 minutes, his contribution realistically amounting to just two carries off Benetton restarts, the first where he was penalised for holding on and the second where he left poleaxed and heading down the tunnel for a HIA.
Toner shows how you bounce back from an RWC setback
Much was made on Friday about how champions Saracens had selected just four players from last May’s Champions Cup final XV for their weekend’s opener at Racing, England’s World Cup campaign a prime reason for the salary cap crisis club.
Leinster, meanwhile, only pitched in against Benetton with seven repeat starters from their defeat six months ago to the Londoners in Newcastle, Garry Ringrose, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath, Cian Healy, Devin Toner and James Ryan the familiar faces still on deck.
Ringrose stole the limelight, aggressively running in a hat-trick, but it was value of an Ireland player who was axed pre-World Cup by Joe Schmidt that caught the eye in the trenches.
An inability to carry in traffic was a reason why Toner was cast aside for South African Jean Kleyn, but the veteran wasn’t shy of getting his hands on the ball at the RDS. Not only was there a trademark fetch at the lineout in the lead-up to Ringrose’s second score, there was also a decent platform-setting carry to a ruck a couple of phases later. His positive attitide went a long way.
‘Most teams in Europe have fines if you arrive late, but we think making players understand that to be on time is a value is more important’
– @MarcoBortolami tells @heagneyl about the transformation at @BenettonRugby to get back into @ChampionsCup https://t.co/utb25EvECk
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 16, 2019
There is so much to like about Benetton’s style
It was 19 months ago when Benetton first provided evidence to an Irish audience that something really was stirring in the Kieran Crowley era. Just weeks before Leinster lifted both Champions Cup and PRO14 trophies, the Italians pickpocketed them at the RDS with a 17-15 win that was the precursor to their run to the league quarter-finals the following season.
Under the baton of the 1987 World Cup winner, they have become a very easy on the eye, ambitious outfit. Whereas in their years of struggle, penalties would have unquestionably been pointed at the posts at every opportunity, there is now a sense of mischief about them and their swagger was rewarded in helping to make proceedings at the RDS very watchable.
For instance, rather than Ian Keatley take a pot at the posts for 3-5, they went to the corner, backed their set-piece and their maul and came away with a 7-5 lead through Dean Budd. It didn’t continue to work, mind. Two further first-half penalties to the corner went unrewarded, but they stuck with the tactic in the second half and had reward through Epalahame Faiva before coming unstuck again.
To their credit, though, even though they eventually found themselves looking well-beaten at 33-14 heading into the closing ten minutes, they encouragingly refused to fold and had the game’s final say with a third try.
WATCH: RugbyPass Rugby Explorer takes a trek through Italian rugby, stopping off at Benetton after visiting Rome
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