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zebre crossing Adam Byrne marks return from injury with two tries as Leinster brush Zebre aside

Leinster 43 Zebre 7

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Adam Byrne of Leinster evades the tackle of Jacopo Trulla of Zebre on his way to scoring his side's third try at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Adam Byrne of Leinster evades the tackle of Jacopo Trulla of Zebre on his way to scoring his side's third try at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Adam Byrne of Leinster evades the tackle of Jacopo Trulla of Zebre on his way to scoring his side's third try at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

There are few mis-matches in world rugby like the best team in the United Rugby Championship and the worst and the 10,400 fans at an unseasonably sunny RDS got what they were expecting as Leinster routed Zebre.

Yet, in the cold light of the video analysis room the champions will be unsparing about a performance that was enough to score seven tries and pick up maximum points but was sloppy enough to warrant concern about the tests to come.

Leo Cullen handed Harry Byrne a chance to impress, but the out-half endured a difficult 22 minutes before shipping a heavy knock that forced him off.

On his return from a foot injury, the 22-year-old’s kicking was well below the standard required.

Johnny Sexton came in and earned the man of the match award, one of several individuals to shine in a muddled team performance.

Ryan Baird was excellent, Dan Leavy looks in excellent shape, Jordan Larmour was electric but Adam Byrne earned the feel-good story of the day as he marked his return from 22 months of injury hell with two tries.

Afterwards, Cullen commented: "It's a bit mixed feeling in the dressing room there, some good stuff, Adam Byrne coming back is great, scoring a couple of tries, a few of the guys playing for their first competitive outing of the season.

"It was always going to be a little bit of a challenge for us, that cohesion bit, but it's round three, it's a short block, so in terms of round four now next week Scarlets will pose a much more stern test you would imagine.

"We'll have a couple of guys probably back in the mix, and again that's the challenge, trying to build this team cohesion.

"It's not straightforward, but it's another win, we're three games in and we just want to keep battling for every single point in this block which is quite short."

They started with real intent. No doubt Michael Bradley’s team-talk centred heavily around keeping things tight for the first 10 minutes, but Italy winger Mattia Bellini handed Leinster their first opening with a soft obstruction penalty and the home side were in no mood to pass it up as Scott Penny burrowed over with 1 minute and 56 seconds on the clock.

Byrne missed the conversion and skewed a touch-finder, but Zebre’s errors gave Leinster a few avenues to attack only for their second-rows to get up and pick off Sean Cronin’s throw.

The veteran hooker put them behind him and nailed his next one after Enrico Lucchin gave away another needless penalty. Leinster’s maul was stopped short, but Jordan Larmour came in off the left wing to bundle through five tacklers and score Leinster's second.

Again, Byrne missed a kickable conversion and his difficult day with the boot continued when he skewed a touch-finding penalty beyond the corner flag.

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The young out-half’s day came to an end after 23 minutes when he shipped a heavy tackle from flanker Iacop Bianchi on his hip.

So, Sexton was pressed into service for an hour and Leinster kept the pressure on with Baird’s carrying causing all sorts of issues.

The Ireland second-row got over the line but was held up, while another promising attack featuring slick hands from Sexton, Ciaran Frawley and Jamie Osborne came a cropper when Ion Neculai got over the ball and forced a penalty.

McGrath seized a loose ball and raced towards the Zebre ’22, but Sexton was over-enthusiastic at the ruck and coughed up another.

Antonio Rizzi attempted to narrow the gap from long-range but his effort came up short, but the kick was a reminder to Leinster that for all their dominance they hadn’t put much on the scoreboard.

So, they went in search of a third try before the interval. Jimmy O’Brien broke from his own ’22 and, when Pierre Bruno knocked on deliberately, Sexton went to the corner.

Osborne carried strongly off the lineout, Dan Leavy followed up and when Ed Byrne pulled the ball back to Sexton he spread it wide to Adam Byrne who marked his return from a 22-month injury absence with a try in the right corner.

Sexton’s conversion went the way of Byrne’s previous efforts, so Leinster had to be content with a 15-0 lead at the interval.

They attempted to explode out of the blocks again and constructed their best attacking sequence of the game, but Cronin couldn’t hold Ed Byrne’s pass as he dived for the line.

The referee was playing advantage, so Cronin tapped the penalty and prop Byrne followed up with a low carry to power over.

Sexton nailed the kick and, with the bonus point in the bag, the visitors began to wilt and after more good build up play Cronin went over in the corner.

The Ireland captain delivered from the touchline and things got more difficult for the Italians when Rizzi hit Sexton late and tipped him beyond the horizontal, earning himself a yellow card.

Last week, Leinster failed to score against 13 Dragons but they made short work of the 14 here as Sexton immediately launched a beautiful cross-kick to Adam Byrne who comfortably scored his second try.

With the sun shining, Sexton and his side were enjoying themselves and Byrne looked all set for a hat-trick only for O’Brien to shank his pass.

Ronan Kelleher came off the bench and powered over from the back of a dominant maul and when Sexton converted Leinster were in range of the half-century.

Instead, it was the Italians who struck next with Nick McCarthy knocking on and Bruno standing Rob Russell up glide over and earn the polite applause of the home crowd who were unperturbed by Leinster’s first concession of the season.

There might have been a second when Renato Giammarioli surged forward and Guglielmo Palazzani chipped in behind, but the ball evaded Bellini and Russell was there to cover.

As the fans headed towards the exits, Zebre finished on the front-foot as Leinster spent the last 10 minutes of the game defending.

They held out, but it summed up a strange afternoon at the RDS. Leinster had the points in the bag, but there’s plenty of scope for improvement.

Scorers:

Leinster: A Byrne 2 tries, S Penny, J Larmour, E Byrne, S Cronin, R Kelleher try each J Sexton 4 cons

Zebre: P Bruno try, P Peschetto con

TEAMS -

LEINSTER - J O’Brien; A Byrne, J Osborne, C Frawley (R Russell 47), J Larmour; H Byrne (J Sexton 23), L McGrath (capt) (N McCarthy 56); E Byrne (P Dooley 51), S Cronin (R Kelleher 51), M Ala’alatoa (C Healy 51); D Toner, R Baird; D Leavy (M Deegan 51), R Ruddock, S Penny (R Molony 71).

ZEBRE -- J Trulla; P Bruno, E Cronje, E Lucchin, M Bellini; A Rizzi (F Licata 59), N Casilio (G Palazzani 66); A Lovotti (D Fischetti 57), O Fabiani (capt) (M Ceciliani 57), I Neculai (M Nocera 57); C Stoian (D Sisi 63), A Zambonin; I Bianchi (P Pescetto 54), R Giammarioli, L Andreani (T Boni 72).

REFEREE - S Grove-White (SRU)

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