Leinster start PRO14 title defence with win at Benetton

Adam Kyriacou

PRO14 champions Leinster survived a scare in their opening match of the new season, beating Benetton 32-27 at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo.

Leinster led 17-14 at the end of a first half which saw plenty of twists and turns. Their tries in the opening 40 minutes came from Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney. Sandwiched in between these were Benetton scores by Derrick Appiah and Tomas Baravalle.

A red card for Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara was a key moment in the second half, but Benetton fought like trojans to stay in the game. Nevertheless, the champions ultimately ground out the win with Kearney adding two more tries to his name.

Leinster dominated the early stages of the match, putting the first points on the board through the boot of Ross Byrne off a scrum penalty in the fifth minute. Adam Byrne scored the first try of the game 10 minutes later, finishing a well-worked team move in Leinster’s right corner.

Benetton responded with a great team try of their own midway through the first half. Appiah crashed over from close range after receiving a cute inside pass. Then in the 25th minute, they stunned the champions by going over again. A break following a quick lineout put the hosts on the front foot and they won a penalty. Having opted for the lineout, Benetton mauled their way over with Baravalle getting the ball down.

Leinster, however, grabbed the lead back just before the break. A long pass out to the left set up Kearney for a try, although it was touch and go whether or not that went forward.

An Ian Keatley penalty levelled the scores at 17-17 shortly after half-time, but then Ratuva saw red in the 49th minute for a dangerous tackle on Kearney, who was going for the ball in the air.

Kearney could have sustained serious damage, but instead had the last laugh. He scored a try in Leinster’s left corner two minutes later after receiving another long pass.

However, Benetton kept scrapping. A Keatley penalty under the posts put them within touching distance again and then Luca Sperandio finished off a try which he had created with a break, not without the help of Joaquin Riera’s fine run. The hosts led again at the hour mark.

Kearney though would strike back to seal his hat-trick on Leinster’s left wing in the 66th minute, receiving a pass from Jimmy O’Brien and brushing off Angelo Esposito’s tackle attempt. Ross Byrne converted to put Leinster in front once again.

One last Leinster penalty kick, knocked over by Harry Byrne, gave the visitors a little bit of breathing space, but Benetton can take huge pride in their performance against a team they will face in the Champions Cup later this year.

Elsewhere, Scarlets saw off Connacht 18-10 in another Saturday evening clash at the Parc y Scarlets.

Scarlets went into the break 12-3 up thanks to tries from Steff Evans and Paul Asquith. Eoghan Masterson pulled a try back for Connacht, but the boot of Dan Jones kept the scoreboard ticking for the hosts, ultimately proving decisive.

Earlier in the day, Munster hammered Dragons 39-9 and Cardiff Blues snatched a 31-27 win from the jaws of defeat against Southern Kings.

First half tries from Arno Botha, Jack O’Donoghue and Shane Daly sent Munster into half-time 22-9 up at Thomond Park.

Tyler Bleyendaal and Diarmuid Barron added further tries for last season’s semi-finalists in the second half as they got the new campaign off to an ideal start.

Southern Kings fell just short of starting their season with a rare win in an ill-disciplined Port Elizabeth showdown. They led 13-5 at half-time due to Tienie Burger’s try and eight points from the boot of Demetri Catrakilis.

Cardiff Blues regained momentum in the second half as Liam Belcher, Matthew Morgan, Kristian Dacey and Harri Millard all grabbed tries. The Kings added to their tally with converted tries from Stefan Ungerer and Andell Loubser but were unable to snatch the win.

The final game of the day saw Edinburgh kick off their season in style as they ran out comfortable 50-15 winners over Zebre at Murrayfield.

Fraser McKenzie, Nic Groom, Matt Scott and Jamie Farndale joined hat-trick hero Mark Bennett in crossing the line for the Scottish side, with Jaco van der Walt adding 13 points off the tee and Simon Hickey two.

Giovanni Licata and Federico Mori scored for Zebre as the Italians endured a tough evening on the road.