leinster leave it later than expected
Winger Fitzgerald sparkles as Cronin and Healy make a massive impact
Leinster left it to the power of replacement Seán Cronin to seal their 29-8 bonus-point win over Zebre at The RDS last night.
It temporarily lifts them into third in the PRO12 at the end of an evening they will want to forget.
"We should have taken our chances in the first half and looked after the ball better in the second. But, we'll take the five points," said coach Matt O'Connor.
The notion Leinster would lose out to the bottom-placed club five days after losing out to the third-from-bottom was simply unimaginable.
They started as though defeat was out of the question, Jimmy Gopperth just unable to land an early penalty.
This gave Zebre the wheels to get going. They were on the point of penetrating when Kane Douglas intervened with a big tackle.
Then, Gopperth's inch-perfect cross-field kick put Fergus McFadden away. The move fizzled out. They just looked a touch rushed.
When the home side were outhustled at a ruck, McFadden cleared into no man's land. The counter came.
Prop Andrea de Marchi and wing Michele Visentin were the links to full-back Hendrik Daniller's sucker-punch try for 5-0 in the 22nd minute.
Leinster reloaded and fired forward until openside Mauro Bergamasco rattled Luke Fitzgerald with a big hit.
A beautiful pass by Fitzgerald set McFadden away again. This time Gordon D'Arcy and Ben Te'o were calm. Dominic Ryan kept the ball instead of going for the 50-50 offload.
The pressure yielded a penalty. But Jack Conan's try was ruled out for Shane Jennings' knock-on at the heel of a maul.
The scrum earned another penalty. Leinster opted for the corner for the third time. When they messed up the lineout-maul, replacement Giacomo Bernini's negligence at a ruck handed Gopperth three points in the 33rd minute.
They undid this when hooker Aaron Dundon got isolated on the carry and Mirco Bergamasco reflated Zebre's five-point cushion in the 37th minute.
It took two quick tackles from Martin Moore and another from the unheralded Michael Bent to prevent further damage.
The half concluded with a sloppy pass from Eoin Reddan skidding into and out of the hands of captain-for-the-night Jennings. This was a fair reflection of how Leinster fumbled and stumbled through a shoddy 40 minutes.
The nightmare scenario was a live possibility as long as Zebre could hold their nerve as well as The Dragons did last Sunday.
In contrast, Leinster's leaders had to come to the fore and they had to stay composed in the red zone.
The malaise continued when Gopperth overcooked a left-footed kick into touch on the full.
Cian Healy and Cronin were immediately summoned for duty.
This changed everything.
A lightning counter was given oxygen by Te'o's surge and offload. Cronin was there to lead the charge. Healy tipped Kirchner's flick pass forward.
Something came to nothing once again.
The scrum generated another penalty. Te'o, Healy D'Arcy all trucked it up to no avail.
An inconsiderate clearance was gathered by Gopperth and moved left for Te'o to activate Fitzgerald on a switch move. The recycle came for Ryan to burst over. Gopperth converted for 10-8 in the 48th minute.
Leinster had the lead for the first time in the game. They had to handle with care.
D'Arcy's eagerness to get his foot to the ball at a ruck forced a spill from Brendon Leonard. Fitzgerald was back carving it up again. Mauro Bergamasco conceded a five-metre scrum.
The dominance there allowed Gopperth's inside snipe to put Leonard on his backside for a second try converted by the out-half in the 57th minute.
Leinster were halfway to the heaven that the bonus-point would bring as openside Dan Leavy came on for his second cap and second-row Ross Molony for his first.
Yet again, the scrum came to Leinster's aid for the reward of a penalty. The maul was formed. The drives came from Healy and Cronin.
Eventually, Gopperth's floater over the top gave Fitzgerald the space to grab his first try of the season.
It put Leinster within sight of the bonus-point though it is arguable whether they deserved it given the slew of errors and turnovers they committed.
The ebb of time put a premium on their accuracy.
Zebre flew in from all angles to cough up penalties. It could mean only one thing. Or two men.
Healy hammered away and Cronin cracked home the fourth for Gopperth to convert.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
LUKE FITZGERALD: The wing was in electric form whether dazzling down the left or coming inside for work.
TURNING POINT: Once Zebre got in front, it was a question of how long they could stay there, holding out until Dominic Ryan's dam-buster gave Leinster the springboard to success in the 48th minute.