Impressive Leinster complete pool assignment with aplomb
Victory over Montpellier secures Cullen a first success in France as head coach
Robbie Henshaw scores Leinster’s second try against Montpellier at the Altrad Stadium. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Leinster 23 Montpellier 14
Leinster’s unbeaten European campaign continues but Montpellier’s meagre resistance at the Altrad Stadium deserved nothing but defeat.
Vern Cotter inherited a multinational, highly paid and freakishly large pack of decorated forwards augmented by some of the most talented backs rugby has ever seen. They had a 15 minutes purple patch leading up to half-time but otherwise looked as interested as any French side that knows their European campaign has been a busted flush since losing at home to Exeter in October.
The tournament favourites march on with two Dublin knockout matches potentially leading them to the Champions Cup final in Bilbao on May 12th.
There were plenty of positives for Leo Cullen – none more so than his first victory in France as head coach, impressively achieved without Johnny Sexton, Seán O’Brien and Scott Fardy – and there are no obvious injury concerns as 17 of this 23 man squad enter Ireland camp.
Leinster’s next game is in Edinburgh on February 9th.
One immediate positive has potential to descend into calamity. James Lowe, an outstanding offensive rugby player, looks a defensive liability that should heat up the selection conversations between Cullen and Stuart Lancaster before the home quarter-final on March 31st/April 1st.
Lowe remains a constant debate as much as Scott Fardy is a certain starter, for the big games, alongside either Devin Toner or James Ryan.
Jamison Gibson-Park made a compelling argument against Lowe with an impressive display that was actually topped by Luke McGrath’s 22 minute cameo.
It should be reiterated that due to employment law Leinster can only name two from Lowe, Fardy and Gibson-Park in European squads.
“It’s a tricky one,” said Cullen recently.
It’s probably his favourite problem.
Lowe looks born to exist in Lancaster’s chaos theory. The current national coach might struggle to promote such an impulsive defender but the Kiwi winger isn’t Irish qualified until 2020 and by then Lancaster could well be overseeing Ireland.
“He’s used to defending in a different system out in New Zealand, they tend to defend up and out,” Lancaster has said. “There’s a bit of work to do there but he’s a great lad.”
A roaming winger, Lowe loves an offload – be it into touch or bouncing off a teammate’s chest – and even tossed an intercept at Nemani Nadolo. Not wise and, presumably, Jordan Larmour will seek to avoid similar errors.
Twice Larmour was brushed aside by Nadolo and missed a tackle of Benjamin Fall but size, technique and willingness are not a concern. Carton House and time with Andy Farrell will only guide the 20-year-old towards world class status as a winger/fullback/centre.
Lowe can also make Larmour a better player. See Ross Byrne’s try with just four minutes played. When All Black outhalf Aaron Cruden failed to find touch Byrne sent Lowe down the left wing. A clever interchange with Jamison Gibson-Park saw him stopped a yard out, before Gibson-Park put Byrne over untouched in the corner.
Byrne converted and made it 8-0 with a penalty on 19 minutes.
There were brief signs of Montpellier’s physical superiority. Twice in the first half Benjamin Fall leaped into the heavens and reclaimed possession over Rob Kearney for significant territorial gains.
Also, Louis Picamoles was typically dominant, splitting a Leinster maul to spark a counterattack that should have ended in a Ruan Pienaar try if not for Timoci Nagusa’s forward pass.
Montpellier scores were inevitable and they were delivered through the Leinster guts. Both tries came off their maul.
Bismarck du Plessis rumbled over on 23 minutes, after Cruden ignored an easy three-pointer, before a decoy maul saw Picamoles charging at the Leinster line. Josh van der Flier stopped the French number eight and while Dan Leavy was also on hand the prospective Irish flankers were unable to deny the offload for Yacouba Camara.
Montpellier went for the jugular but Leinster kept it to 14-8 at the turn. Tadhg Furlong played his part. After more high fielding by Fall, a Cruden kick pass was taken by Frans Steyn who flipped the ball to Nadolo. A certain try was denied by Furlong arriving to topple the mighty winger.
Leinster regrouped, perhaps knowing to beat this massive French-Georgian-South African pack they must keep them moving.
They took them through the phases before, five minutes into the second half, a snappy pass by Kearney led to Robbie Henshaw stepping inside Nadolo for the second Leinster try.
Byrne missed the touchline conversion but a penalty put Leinster back in front, 16-14.
Their superior fitness began to tell. A pair of offloads by the superb James Ryan and Leavy prompted Gibson-Park to kick into the Montpellier 22 and from the resulting lineout Leinster mauled Seán Cronin over for the third try.
That was the game. It was worth staying tuned to see Joey Carbery’s return to rugby, after fracturing his arm in November, as he replaced Kearney at fullback rather than Byrne at outhalf.
MONTPELLIER: B Fall; T Nagusa, F Steyn, J Serfontein, N Nadolo; A Cruden, R Pienaar; M Nariashvili, B Du Plessis, A Guillamon; N Van Rensburg, K Mikautadze; K Galletier, Y Camara, L Picamoles.
Replacements: J Mogg for T Nagusa, M Haouas for A Guillamon (both 54 mins), F Ouedraogo for T Camara, Y Watremez for M Nariashvili (both 60 mins), J Tomane for F Steyn (67 mins), R Ruffenach for B du Plessis (72 mins), J Delannoy for N van Rensburg (74 mins), G Aprasidze for R Pienaar (76 mins).
LEINSTER: R Kearney; J Larmour, R Henshaw, I Nacewa, J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson Park; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; D Leavy, J van der Flier, J Conan.
Replacements: J McGrath for C Healy (50 mins), L McGrath for J Gibson-Park, J Carbery for R Kearney (both 57 mins), J Murphy for D Leavy, A Porter for T Furlong (both 66 mins), F McFadden for J Lowe (68 mins), B Byrne for S Cronin (70 mins), R Molony for J Ryan (73 mins).
Referee: Luke Pearce (England).