There was a soothing sight for sore Irish eyes in Dublin on Friday night, Dan Leavy of Leinster and Ireland finally making his return to play 573 days after he was left sprawled in a heap with a horrible knee dislocation and fears for his playing career.

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It’s only a short one-kilometre walk from the Aviva Stadium, the scene of the 26-year-old’s terrible injury on March 30 in 2019, to the RDS but it had taken Leavy 19 months to make the trip, so badly crocked was he by the honest Ulster clear-out in the Champions Cup quarter-finals while defending on his 22.

In the interim, back row Leavy had missed 33 Champions Cup and PRO14 matches with Leinster, among them two league finals and a European decider, and there was always the fear with his type of serious injury that he might never be adding to the tally of 63 provincial appearances, never mind his eleven Ireland caps which featured that coming of age Grand Slam triumph in 2018.

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RugbyPass went behind the scenes at the 2018 PRO14 final won by Leinster in Dublin

However, back he finally came on 53 minutes, summoned from the bench to replace Rhys Ruddock in the perfect circumstance of the result at that stage being already beyond doubt with Leinster 35-3 to the good and on fire.

In normal times his arrival would have had a five-figure crowd on its feet applauding. Instead, with the match taking place behind closed doors, there was an isolated clap from the grandstand housing some media and a gaggle of stewards and that was that. Down to business with the minimum of fuss. Typical Dan.

What followed largely passed the No23 jersey replacement by, something in keeping with how these things generally go when a forward comes back from a long lay-off. Positioning takes time to get used to again, as does mentally flicking the switch that everything is going to be fine and the knee is ready for whatever physicality that gets thrown at it in a match situation as opposed to hours of endless training. Similarly, with the lungs, you tend to blow very quickly and Leavy did, sucking for air at times.

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It was why Leo Cullen had advised pre-game: “People need to be patient and have realistic expectations… we’ve had to wait a long while to get to this point but huge credit to him. As we saw at the time, it was a nasty injury.”

Leavy’s comeback was quickly celebrated by tries from Josh Murphy and Ciaran Parker and while Michelangelo Biondelli had a Zebre consolation, Tommy O’Brien and Scott Penney pushed the scoreboard out to 63-8, the 9-1 try count fairly illustrating the vast gulf between the sides.

Then came the near storybook finish. With the clock in the red as Zebre fed a halfway scrum, the Italians spilt the ball on the other side of the pitch and Leavy, of all people, gave it an almighty whack along the ground and took off in hot pursuit.

He grubber kicked it a second time and while Biondelli then outpaced him and gathered, his pass to Tommaso Boni was dropped behind the try line. Leavy pounced, touched the ball on the ground and celebrated as if his 19-month wait in between Leinster matches just had a dream finish.

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It wasn’t to be though, TMO ruling out the ‘score’, but there will be much more to come from Leavy, that late glimpse boding well for the winter weeks and months ahead when he will surely find his form and be wearing a starting XV jersey.

As for the match before Leavy’s arrival, it was typical PRO14 in Dublin, Leinster handing out a beating and speeding towards a try bonus point as early as the 37th minute. Their varied attack off the lineout did for outclassed Zebre, whose depth whenever they play on the same weekend as the Italian national team always leaves much to be desired.

Prop Michael Bent was shunted over on 13 minutes, debut-making Dan Sheehan raced in off Zebre ball that spilt over the top of a set-piece seven minutes later, Dave Kearney ran an excellent line with decoy runners distracting the defence on 29 minutes, and it was O’Brien who then banked the bonus point try just before the break after the visitors slacked off tackles.

With Zebre managing a solitary penalty in reply, the margin at the interval was 25 points, but just two second-half minutes were needed for that to spin out to 32, Sheehan grabbing his second try off a close-in pick and go. The rookie hooker went on to collect the match of the match award but the real winner was Leavy. His 19-month hell was at long last over.

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