Victory at the RDS Arena represented a landmark win for Benetton, who claimed just their second-ever success over Leinster and their first-ever on Irish soil. The last time the men from Treviso had got the better of their opponents was a 29-13 success back in September 2010.
Benetton’s success was borne of opportunism – characterised by Tommaso Allan’s match-winning try – and then incredible defensive resolve, with the Italians successfully standing up to everything that came their way from the Leinstermen.
Following the Scarlets’ 52-14 defeat at the hands of Edinburgh Rugby, Leinster could have secured top spot in Conference B and a home semi-final in the Guinness PRO14 Final Series. Instead, that battle will rage on until Round 21 – the final round of fixtures of the 2017-2018 season.
The game is never over until it’s over. The Italians never gave up despite conceding four tries in the first half and fought doggedly to the end with the belief of victory spurring them on. Once Zebre got a try back after half-time they piled the pressure on Dragons and took advantage of their momentum to score three tries in 15 minutes to close the gap.
Dragons struggled after the break. Jared Rosser grabbed a first-half hat trick and Charlie Davies added a fourth just before the break to give the visitors a healthy lead, but they failed to see out the game in the second half. Zebre scored 24 points in the second half to Dragons’ six, and the Welshman will be bitterly disappointed that they could not hold out.
The visitors still could not churn out a win. Dragons are now without victory in the Guinness PRO14 since the end of September, and haven’t won on the road since March 2015 when they triumphed against Benetton in Treviso. The men from Gwent were 10 minutes from ridding themselves of that stat, alas Zebre’s spirit got the better of them.
Conor Murray remains the linchpin of this Munster side. He came off the bench with Munster 14-0 down in the first half and immediately scored a try. That got Munster back into this game and he nailed a 56-metre penalty after the break. The scrum-half’s fine form from the Six Nations is now being shown in Munster colours which bodes well for the Irish province.
The visitors were far from their best but they managed to get the all-important win in Bloemfontein to secure second place in Conference A. That means they have two semi-finals to look forward to in the coming weeks and the potential for a league and European Cup debut is still on. Munster conceded just six penalties on Friday night which was crucial.
Clayton Blommetjies continues to impress for the Cheetahs – it’s clear why Scarlets have snapped up the back for next season. The full-back was on the scoresheet again on Friday, and set up a second, as the Cheetahs raced out of the blocks. A top three finish is still on for the South Africans if they can get a point against the Southern Kings on the final weekend.
Hidalgo-Clyne was the pivot for Edinburgh throughout his time on the field, while his pace caused havoc to Scarlets’ defence on plenty of occasions. This was never more the case than when he dashed 50 metres down the left wing after getting on the end of Jaco van der Walt’s pass for the hosts’ third try. He also showed his feet are capable of setting up others when his lovely kick ahead sat up nicely for Duhan van der Merwe to collect and score. Hidalgo-Clyne more than earned his rest in the final 20 minutes after another fine performance in what has been a successful season for the 24-year-old.
It was obvious that Edinburgh had targeted the Scarlets’ right flank and they did so to devastating effect, with five of their eight tries being worked down the hosts’ left. Duhan van der Merwe benefitted by scoring twice, as Edinburgh exploited the space that was often afforded to them. It led to Edinburgh running up their biggest victory of the campaign and if they play at the same tempo, their 1872 Cup match against Glasgow Warriors in two weeks’ time could be one of the games of the season.
With a European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium coming up next week, Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac chose to make 13 changes from the team that defeated Glasgow. Regardless, the Scarlets still managed to put some good moves together – Dan Jones’ try was particularly well-constructed – they struggled without the ball. Scarlets must now get a five point win when they play the Dragons at the Principality Stadium in a fortnight, and hope Leinster get nothing against Connacht, for a home Semi-Final Qualifier in the Guinness PRO14 Final Series .
Glasgow Warriors have caught the eye for so many reasons this season, not least their home form. Scotstoun is a fortress and the first-half onslaught against Connacht shows just what Dave Rennie’s side can do to teams with a vocal partisan support at their backs. They have now guaranteed a home semi-final after a tenth win from ten at the ground this season in the Guinness PRO14. No one will relish that trip.
Finn Russell is the darling of the Glasgow crowd, but Peter Horne’s man-of-the-match performance shows the depth of talent Glasgow have. Horne’s faultless display with the boot kept the home side’s score ticking over and was major part of stretching the lead beyond any Connacht resurgence.
Glasgow’s backs caught the eye as they so often do, but there was a relentless period of Connacht pressure in the second period that tested their defence to the max. And despite the Irish province making the scoreboard more respectable in the second period, Glasgow survived 15 minutes of attacks midway through the half, despite losing Alex Allan to the sin bin.
Kirby Myhill’s two tries exemplified the Welsh side’s strength from the driving maul, while Jarrod Evans stepped up and showed what a classy fly-half he is, his incisive early run sending the Blues on their way to the first of seven tries.
On a bad day for the Kings, Ntabeni Dukisa’s well taken try was a highlight, dancing through the Blues defence and lunging for the line. He made more metres than anyone in the Kings side but was unable to prevent anything other than an away win.
After missing out on a Guinnes PRO14 Final Series spot in such heart-breaking fashion, conceding a late penalty try to the Chiefs, the Blues could have been forgiven for being a little off the boil against the Kings. But needing a win to secure a Champions Cup spot, they bounced back superbly, racing to the try bonus point after half an hour and demonstrating tremendous mental strength.
The story of the low-scoring night was just how hard Ospreys had to work to keep out the incessant pressure of Ulster’s attacks. With speedsters like Jacob Stockdale having the tools to trouble any defence, the Welsh side were constantly putting out fires as they kept them tryless for 80 minutes before the wing raced over. Coach Allen Clarke will be buoyed by the defensive effort of his charges, despite the defeat.
The flip side of Ospreys’ heroics in defence was that they were disappointing in possession and when presented with scoring chances. Dan Biggar, who tackled manfully throughout the match, missed a fairly routine first-half kick and there was little pressure put on the Ulstermen when the Ospreys had ball in hand.
It was a strangely missed night for Ulster as well – the hosts were well on top and controlled much of the game and rarely looked in trouble. However, they wasted several key scoring chances – Nick Timoney and Charles Piutau certainly should have done better with their opportunities, Timoney ruled to have knocked on when diving for the line and Piutau’s offload missed Stockdale with just the line in sight.