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Benetton Rugby v Leinster Rugby

Guinness Pro14, Round 10

Stadio Monigo, Treviso

Saturday 2nd December 2017 Kick-off 4.30 (3.30 Irish time)

TV: TG4

Farewell Treviso, from now on it's just Benetton rugby.

 

In the move that most people aren't even aware of, the Treviso part of the club's name was jettisoned during the summer as part of a corporate re-branding. However, whether the clothing giant are providing more funds or coach Kieran Crowley's influence is more to the fore in his second season, Benetton have been better this season.

 

They haven't been spectacular but they've been markedly more competitive and their heaviest defeat was on opening day away to Munster. Since then they've won at home to the Kings and Ospreys and away to Edinburgh. They've been competitive in most of their other league game and in the Europe they came agonisingly close to beating giants Toulon only losing by a point to a last minute kick. Ian McKinley was outstanding that day, kicking nineteen points and in the last three weeks he's played three times for the Italian national team capping off a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Dubliner.

 

Of course McKinley started his career with Leinster and looked to have a hugely promising career ahead of him before he suffered a freak eye injury in a club match. Though he made a few starts for Leinster after the incident, most memorably a man of the match performance against (ironically enough) Benetton Treviso at the RDS, he eventually lost the sight in the eye and was forced to retire at only 21.

 

Devastated at having lost his rugby career, he moved to Italy to do some coaching and make a fresh start. However after his brother helped design special protective glasses, he took to the field again, first in the lower leagues of Italian rugby. It was a nice story but you wondered how far could he go, especially playing with just the sight in one eye. But he kept rising through the levels in Italian rugby and succeeding as he went. Professional clubs in Italy were interested in him but in 2015 his progress was momentarily halted cruelly enough by a decision by his home country's Union.

 

The IRFU's penny-pinching decision not to take part in the trial of the goggles McKinley needed to take the field made him unable to take part in games played in Ireland and this meant he was less attractive to the Italian Pro12 sides. But a social media campaign shamed the IRFU into eventually signing up to the trial and after impressing in a short-term deal with Zebre, Benetton signed him to a full time contract last season. His consistency and even temperament have benefited the side, which led to his international debut. It's a brilliant story but now McKinley wants to be known for his play and not his inspirational story and there's no telling how far he'll go.

 

And after all that build-up, McKinley doesn't feature tomorrow in a team showing only two changes from the side that were just pipped at the death by Ulster in Belfast last week. Marty Banks comes in at full back and Luca Sperandio is named on the left wing.

 

Ulster's failure to get a bonus point in that match last week meant Leinster skipped past them into second place. Leinster started slowly against the Dragons last week with a dire first ten minutes, but once they found their rhythm they blew them off the park with four tries in each half. With a massive double header coming up against English champions Exeter in the next two weeks, head coach Leo Cullen had juggled his side making ten changes from last week.

 

There's much excitement in the backline as Garry Ringrose is back fit to make his first start of the season. He's joined by Leinster's new signing James Lowe who make his first Leinster start on the left wing. Dave Kearney comes in to start on the right wing and Luke McGrath comes in to captain the side from scrum-half. Only Scott Fardy survives from the front five from last week as Jack McGrath, James Tracy, Andrew Porter and Ian Nagle all come in. Josh van der Flier returns from injury to start at open-side and Jack Conan comes in at number eight.

 

Leinster should win but expect a tougher battle that usual, which could be no bad thing as they have a very tough match away to Exeter next Sunday.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2017-12-01

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