Zebre Push Leinster All The Way In 10-Try Thriller

Zebre Parma exposed some poor Leinster defence in a 10-try thriller, but the visitors hung on for a winning start to their BKT United Rugby Championship campaign. Wearing their all white alternate kit, Leo Cullen’s men moved into a 28-10 half-time lead despite not having it all their own way in the first half. Indeed, new full-back Richard Kriel and Pierre Bruno both crossed out wide during Zebre captain David Sisi’s sin-bin period as the much-changed Italians stayed in the fight. Leinster wrestled back control, though, with debutant Jason Jenkins claiming a 36th-minute bonus point to add to Luke McGrath’s opener and a well-taken Rhys Ruddock brace. Ross Byrne’s four conversions proved important in the end as Leinster had to endure a nervy finish. Fabio Roselli’s new-look Zebre side impressed during the second half with three well-crafted tries. Simone Gesi, debutant MJ Pelser and replacement Franco Smith Jr all got on the scoresheet, much to the home crowd’s delight, but a Dave Kearney effort on the hour mark allowed Leinster to grind out the result. Leinster were first to settle, propelled forward by a scrum penalty before Ronan Kelleher was held up off a lineout drive in the third minute. A Charlie Ngatai break through the middle had them pressing again, the sustained pressure leading to McGrath squeezing over from a ruck. Out-half Byrne quickly converted. Zebre took 10 minutes to threaten, the pacy Bruno just knocking on as a nice back-line move took them to the edge of the Leinster 22. After a scrappy spell, the visitors reasserted themselves when Jenkins fed the ball down off a 20th-minute lineout and Ruddock bulldozed over past two defenders. Byrne’s right boot made it 14-0. The task grew more difficult for Zebre as successive penalties led to Sisi seeing yellow for hands on the ground as he tried to turn over the ball near his own line. From the resulting lineout, hooker Kelleher went close before captain Ruddock was driven over with timely support from Ed Byrne and Max Deegan. Following Byrne’s third successful conversion, the home side swiftly hit from a slick first-phase move. Bruno ran hard off a Tiff Eden pass, piercing a hole and linking with Enrico Lucchin who sped across to the left where he gave Kriel a straightforward finish. Out-half Eden’s cross-field kick then gave Bruno a one-on-one out wide. The Italy-capped winger chipped through and won the race to dot the ball down in the right corner, closing the gap to 21-10. However, big South African lock Jenkins – aided by the industrious Deegan and loosehead Byrne – powered over before the interval. The Leinster pack again upped the physicality and Zebre paid the price for leaking penalties. The tables were turned on the resumption with Zebre seizing the initiative again. Their ambition to go wide was rewarded when Gesi reached over past Rob Russell to touch down from Kriel’s flicked pass. Chris Cook soon sparked a break down the blindside, with Luca Andreani gaining ground, before fellow flanker Pelser bounced off Jamie Osbourne’s attempted tackle to romp in under the posts. Eden’s simple conversion suddenly made it a six-point game (28-22), but Leinster managed to give themselves some breathing space with a timely unconverted score. Deft handling from Ngatai, Byrne and replacement Ciaran Frawley created the opportunity, with the latter firing out a long pass for Kearney to go over in the left corner. Nonetheless, with Leinster’s defence still looking shaky at times, a neat set-up from the influential Lucchin put Smith Jr in between Frawley and Kearney for a 69th-minute try converted by Englishman Eden. A brace of bonus points was the least Zebre deserved given their excellent fight-back from 21 points. They hammered away in search of a late match winner, but Leinster stood firm to take home the maximum haul.