Brave Leinster win battle of inches against Montpellier giants

Leo Cullen’s side claim bonus-point win in a treacherous pool

Leinster 24 Montpellier 17

One of the golden rules of navigating ones way out of the European Champions Cup’s treacherous pool stages, all the more so when its full of sharks, is to pick up bonus points, especially by adorning home wins with four tries.

Granted, away losing ones can be invaluable too, as Leinster showed a year ago when they not only prevented Montpellier adding a fourth try in the last 22 minutes, but pilfered a bonus point from 22-6 down through Isa Nacewa’s 79th-minute try.

Viewed in that context, Montpellier’s losing bonus point here provided some sustenance for them, but on the balance of things, a 5-1 split for Leinster is still a good return, and better than 4-0. They’d have taken it before the game, and assuredly would have when Montpellier were ominously hammering away for a draw, which would have instead meant a 3-2 split in Leinster’s favour.


That would have put an altogether different complexion on this brutally tough group, potentially all the more so when these sides meet in the Altrad Stadium on the last weekend of the group stages.

Given the quality of the match-up, and its huge significance, there were a surprising number of empty seats dotted around the edges of the four stands. The attendance was given as 15,559, as against 46,374 at the Aviva the weekend before.

Go figure.

There was only an hour’s difference in the timing of the kick-offs. Could that many Leinster fans have preferred the 0-0 draw between Liverpool and Man Utd? If so, they assuredly got that one wrong.

This was a brutally physical yet high tempo, fluctuating, entertaining and absorbing game. Already shorn of the 257 caps from the absent quartet of Seán O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney, Leinster lost Scott Fardy before kick-off, resulting in a European debut for James Ryan, and Nacewa before half-time.

Brave with and without the ball, they deserved this win simply by dint of protecting the ball better and playing with more ambition. Seeking mostly to batter Leinster into submission with their battery of one-off runners, even then Montpellier made 23 turnovers to Leinster’s 11.

In a battle of inches, Leinster were credited with making 499 metres, and Montpellier 500. Leinster had 49 per cent possession, which highlights the alacrity with which they took their scores.

As expected, given each is more notable for their attacking than defensive strengths, the Nemani Nadolo-Adam Byrne match-up yielded some tries

Having instigated the counter-attack, Joey Carbery accelerated through a gap between Frans Steyn and an almost disinterested looking Nemani Nadolo for the first. Adam Byrne left Nadolo for dead when working a switch with Barry Daly, and Ross Byrne added more inroads before Josh van der Flier's sharp finish for the second. Adam Byrne's aerial abilities to Ross Byrne's cross kick led to Robbie Henshaw's finish, and the combined footwork and passing of Henshaw and Carbery enabled Daly to score the fourth with a strong finish through the double tackle of Steyn and Timoci Nagusa.

For their tries, Nadolo first flopped over the line from a scrum that Wayne Barnes effectively allowed to become a maul, and then barged through tackles by Luke McGrath and Noel Reid for close-range finishes.

But only Leinster’s scrambling prevented further damage, as they missed 34 tackles in total – 11 of which were on Nadolo.

The two most effective tackles on the monstrous Fijian were by Nacewa and Henshaw, a couple of old-fashioned, around-the-ankle tree fellers. When asked low or high, Henshaw smiled and said: “Low. Ankles. Chop. Only way.”

As for tackling a human fridge on roller blades, he admitted: “It’s not nice, it didn’t hurt really but it’s a bit embarrassing when you get thrown like a rag-doll around the place. He’s a two-man job.”

A little remarkably, Montpellier’s vastly experienced hooker Bismarck du Plessis, something of a driving force for them, bemoaned his team’s failure to even procure a bonus point, in the apparent belief that this competition apes the Top 14 scoring system, whereby a losing team has to finish within five points to earn a bonus point. (An attacking bonus point can only be achieved through scoring three more tries than the opposition, so perhaps he wasn’t aware that Leinster had secured a bonus point as well.)

“Oh, did we?” he exclaimed surprisingly when informed as much in the press room. “That’s perfect. Then it’s very good for us. Last year, when Nacewa scored right, right at the end, I was watching and said ‘shit, that’s really a massive thing for them’ because it just lifts you, especially playing them now at home again.”

Compared to the slog that is the 26-game Top 14, the more rarefied air of the European Champions is more a series of sprints. Without exactly explaining why, Du Plessis gave an intriguing French/South African insight into the contrast.

“It’s different,” said du Plessis, smiling broadly. “The Top 14 is different. Now you’re going to ask me how it’s different. It’s different. Are you French? Do you know the French? Un petit peu? It’s just totally different, in what’s important.

“I think Leinster were precise. We were in there with a chance at the end where we had a two-on-one, we could have maybe levelled the scores, and I thought one or two calls went against us, but it’s totally different. You can’t compare Top 14 to European rugby.”

SCORING SEQUENCE: 18 mins Carbery try 5-0; Van der Flier try, Nacewa con 12-0; 38 mins Nadolo try, Pienaar con 12-7; (half-time 12-7); 44 mins Henshaw try, R Byrne con 19-7; 62 mins Nadolo try, Pienaar con 19-14; 68 mins Daly try 24-14; 70 mins Pienaar pen 24-17.

LEINSTER: Joey Carbery; Adam Byrne, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (capt), Barry Daly; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Jack McGrath, James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, Scott Fardy; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Noel Reid for Nacewa (35 mins), Seán Cronin for Tracy, Cian Healy for J McGrath (both 47 mins), Michael Bent for Furlong, Ross Molony for Ryan, Jordi Murphy for van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park for L McGrath (all 63 mins), Fergus McFadden for Daly (80 mins).

Sin-binned: A Byrne (75 mins).

MONTPELLIER: Jesse Mogg; Benjamin Fall, Joseph Tomane, Frans Steyn, Nemani Nadolo; Thomas Darmon, Ruan Pienaar; Mikheil Nariashvili, Bismarck Du Plessis, Antoine Guillamon; Jacques Du Plessis, Nicholaas Van Rensburg; Kelian Galletier, Yacouba Camara, Louis Picamoles (capt).

Replacements: Julien Delannoy for Van Rensburg (38 mins), Davit Kubriashvili for Guillamon, Joffrey Michel for Mogg (both 52 mins),Benoit Paillaugue for Darmon (56 mins), Timoci Nagusa for Fall (63 mins), Wiaan Liebenberg for Camara (69 mins), Timoci Nagusa for Fall (63 mins), Romain Ruffenach for B du Plessis (78 mins). Not used: Yvan Watremez.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).

Attendance: 15,559.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times