Leinster v Montpellier
Kick of: 1pm.
TV: Sky Sports Action from 12.30pm.
The unexpected absence of Johnny Sexton – playmaker in chief, defensive leader, goal-kicker and much more besides – looks like something of a potential game changer for Leinster's crunch opener against a monstrous Montpellier side, albeit one that is offset by the French side being without their expensively acquired All Blacks out-half Aaron Cruden.
Suddenly, the two sides will be marshalled by a couple of relative novices – the 22-year-old Ross Byrne and 19-year-old Thomas Darmon – than two quality test calibre out-halves who came across each other in the Lions' drawn series in New Zealand.
Having apparently suffered a dead leg against Munster, Leinster are bound to miss Sexton's leadership, control and especially his tackling. Allied to the absence of Sean O'Brien, whose calf problem keeps him out again, and longer-term casualties Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney, it gives them a callow look.
Granted, O’Brien and Kearney were missing when Leinster played Montpellier in Dublin last January, but even so that quartet have a cumulative tally of 257 appearances in this competition to complement their vast Test experience. By contrast, the four players filling those positions have a combined 34 appearances in Europe.
Leo Cullen was relatively optimistic that Sexton and O'Brien would return next week for the trip to Glasgow, although he admits he also thought O'Brien would make it this week whereas he didn't think Isa Nacewa would.
Nacewa starts at inside centre, with Robbie Henshaw’s shift to outside centre perhaps a pointer to the autumn tests.
“We’ve focused a lot on ourselves, and getting the basics right,” said the returning Nacewa. “The forwards know that starts with set pieces. Ross has to control the game well, and the leaders on the field have to step up. If we can do that, it’s a really good starting point for us. We’ve been pushing this week that the leaders have to share the workload, and just get out and do the basics right. If we do that, we’ll be in with a shot.”
Cruden, meanwhile, suffered a hamstring strain when practising his goal-kicking on Thursday and will also miss their home game tomorrow week against Exeter. Darmon will be making his Euro debut, but did guide Montpellier to their sole away win of the season to date, at Castres; seemingly very cool under pressure, he is highly regarded among a new wave of French out-halves. Presumably, also, Darmon will interchange positions with Frans Steyn, thereby utilising the Springbok's huge right boot.
Montpellier are virtually unrecognisable from the team which lost 57-3 in Dublin last season. Under a new coaching ticket headed by Vern Cotter, who was in New Zealand last week (due to the death of his mother) when Montpellier lost to Stade Français, they retain only four of last season's starting line-up – Joe Tomane, Steyn (who played at out-half and was red carded in the first half), Nemani Nadolo and Mikheil Nariashvili.
Nonetheless, the scale of that 57-3 defeat is sure to be a powerful spur for Montpellier. Looking ahead to this game a couple of weeks ago, Cotter said: “The guys know that if you’re off slightly you pay for it, so it’ll help the focus going into the game, I would think, by looking back and taking learnings from previous encounters.”
Cotter has come across Leinster previously when he was with Clermont, and said of the Irish province: “They’ll be true to themselves. They’ve been the heart of Irish rugby for a number of years and they’ve got a lot of Irish internationals. They’ll play that very robust game around rucks. They’re a team that have done particularly well in the European competition. They’ve got three stars on their jersey. They’re very proud, so it’s a great, great way to start.”
Montpellier are also boosted by the return of Louis Picamoles to captain the side, as well as flanker Yacouba Camara and the Wallabies' pair of Tomane and Jesse Mogg.
Nadolo, unstoppable in the home game which Montpellier won 12 months ago, leads the Top 14 try-scoring charts with seven tries so far. Adam Byrne will need to be on his game defensively. But last January he also showed that Nadolo can be exposed defensively. Indeed, last week Stade scored all three of their tries down his wing, when Nadolo was regularly receiving an earful of advice/encouragement from Bismarck du Plessis, a standard-bearer who Montpellier sorely missed here last season.
Although they look to have an issue at tight-head – Antoine Guillamon was binned after conceding three scrum penalties last week – they retain a powerful go-to maul which has yielded three tries in their last two games, a new-found control and inventiveness from the Ruan Pienaar-Cruden axis, and potent finishing out wide.
Second in the Top 14, they have scored the most points (241) and tries (32) of any team in the table, although last week’s defeat, along with a 47-17 trouncing in Bordeaux, suggests their recurring travel sickness remains. They are also proving slow starters.
It’s also worth noting that three of their four bonus point wins at home (scoring 182 points) have come against the bottom three of Agen, Oyonnax and Brive.
Montpellier couldn’t live with the sheer tempo and skill levels Leinster displayed last January, and Leinster’s best hope again looks to be running the Montpellier juggernaut off their feet with rapid fire recycling and a few quick taps and throws. That said, Leinster were motoring at the mid-way point of last season. Whether they have sufficient game time collectively, or the personnel, to reprise that kind of performance, we are about to find out.
LEINSTER RUGBY: 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: Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Jordi Murphy, Jamison Gibson-Park, Noel Reid, Fergus McFadden
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: Romain Ruffenach, Yvan Watremez, Davit Kubriashvili, Julien Delannoy, Wiaan Liebenberg, Benoit Paillaugue, Timoci Nagusa, Joffrey Michel.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England),
Overall records: Leinster – Pl 150. W 97 D 5 L 48. Montpellier – Pl 31 W 12 D 2 L 17.
Head to head: (2011-12) Montpellier 16 Leinster 16. Leinster 25 Montpellier 3. (2016-17) Montpellier 22 Leinster 16. Leinster 57 Montpellier 3.
Betting (Paddy Power): 4/9 Leinster, 19/1 Draw, 15/8 Montpellier. Handicap odds (Montpellier +5pts) 10/11 Leinster, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Montpellier.
Forecast: Leinster to win.