Leinster 24 Montpellier 17
'C'mon on ye boys in blue' has rarely seemed so apt, nor more deserving. Already shorn a stellar list of serial European Cup winners, Leinster lost Wallabies lock Scott Fardy before kick-off when his wife went into labour and then saw captain Isa Nacewa hobble off before the end of the half.
Such experience and physicality would have been particularly handy against a monstrous and far more expensively assembled Montpellier, but this relatively callow Leinster line not only repeatedly put their bodies on the line in the face of repeated charges by the hulking Nemani Nadolo and co, but were equally brave with the ball.
It may well prove a huge game in the context of their season.
Always in front, always looking to set the pace, Leinster conjured four tries to earn a superb bonus-point win, and while Montpellier did leave with a losing bonus point of their own, all in all this was a more than acceptable return for Leo Cullen’s men. At the end, Montpellier were hammering away against 14 men for a draw and a 3-2 split of the points, which would have put an altogether different perspective on this group already.
Unlike Ulster the night before, Leinster's lineout was excellent save for one James Tracy throw which was caught by the wind, thereby providing a solid platform along with their scrum. Until wilting in the final quarter and falling foul of the far too influential Wayne Barnes, their work-rate at the breakdown was excellent too, with the likes of Jack McGrath, the immense Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier putting in huge shifts.
Ross Byrne rose to the occasion with some daring, big plays, as did Robbie Henshaw, who enjoyed the wider spaces of outside centre. Adam Byrne, like Nadolo, was brilliant going forward, if less so when trying to stop the monstrous Fijian, while Barry Daly augmented some fine defensive reads with one superb piece of covering from a box-kick by the excellent Ruan Pienaar. Joey Carbery, scoring one and creating another, oozed class as ever with his running and distribution, albeit he'll rue a few iffy kicks.
Given the huge stakes, curiously there were a fair few empty seats come the 1pm kick-off, albeit the late arrivals, some nearing half-time, helped fill the ground. It was still some way short of capacity for the three-time winners’ opening European game against a French team of high calibre and highly paid stars, and thus barely a third of the attendance for last week’s derby with Munster.
Montpellier kicked off with the blustery wind behind them, and began testing Leinster in contact; tests they passed. For their part, Leinster clearly set out to kick their way out of their own half asap. Even so, after Nacewa trucked up good lineout ball, Luke McGrath not only telegraphed his intentions to box kick in the middle of the field, and to Nadolo of all people. He duly trampled through Adam Byrne again.
But when Nadolo was asked to defend for the first time in the match, not entirely unexpectedly, he was found wanting. Carbery began and finished the move. First he gathered a relieving kick from Jesse Mogg, who'd been penned back well by Ross Byrne's well weighted kick in behind him, and Carbery, as his is wont, beat the first man to link with Byrne, who linked with Henshaw.
After Conan trucked it up well, Leinster had a free play for hands on the ball, and Ross Byrne used it well when skip-passing to Carbery on the 22. He has more awareness of space than most, as well as the pace to exploit it, and duly accelerated in a straight diagonal line to the corner through a yawning gap between Frans Steyn and Nadolo.
Ross Byrne missed the touchline conversion, but Leinster kept making their hits and forcing spillages, first from Bismarck du Plessis, and then good line speed by Conan and Jack McGrath forced a forward tip pass inside by Yacouba Camara to Kelian Galletier.
When Leinster narrowed the defence and then went wide, Nacewa played the ball out the back to Daly on the loop. Adam Byrne called for the switch, and left Nadolo for dead. On and on Leinster went, steaming onto the ball and clearing out ferociously, before Ross Byrne – who was having a fine game – made the next intrusion. Eventually the pressure told, as Van der Flier took a trademark line onto Luke McGrath’s pass and went through the tackle by Mikheil Nariashvili to score. Nacewa took over the kicking duties to convert for a 12-0 lead.
However, soon after Nacewa, who seemed to suffer a recurrence of his calf injury, became the latest experienced casualty in Leinster's ranks when he was replaced by Noel Reid, and that blow soon became a double whammy. Luke McGrath didn't help Leinster's cause with a very ill-advised quick tap, from which Ross Byrne had no option but to take the ball into contact, whereupon the scrum-half box kicked to Nadolo, again.
Montpellier remained on the front foot when Nariashvili won the ball back at the breakdown, and Steyn beat Henshaw before going through Reid. Leinster scrambled well, but despite one very good defensive read by Daly, they were clinging on until Nadolo was held up just short.
Barnes allowed a five-metre scrum to screw 90 degrees and stand up, thus becoming a quasi maul with Camara holding back Ruddock at the side. When Luke McGrath went for an intercept off Louis Picamoles’s intended flick to Pienaar off the base, the ball merely deflected to Nadolo, who picked up and fell over the line.
Pienaar landed a fine conversion in the blustery breeze from the touchline, his experience of this venue perhaps a help.
The half ended with Van der Flier unable to hold onto Ross Byrne’s wounded duck of a pass.
Credit to the Leinster think-tank, as the home team came out of the blocks quicker following the resumption. When Benjamin Fall played the ball from an offside position after the ball went forward off Picamoles, Leinster went to the corner.
After a couple of phases, Ross Byrne's crosskick used Adam Byrne's ability in the air, and when the winger went up with Mogg, the ball deflected back inside off the Wallabies fullback. It eluded Nadolo and slipped through the hands of Joe Tomane, for Henshaw to gather and score. Ross Byrne landed a fine conversion.
Leinster kept knocking, and there was one superb handling exchange between Cian Healy, who made a big impact, Ross Byrne, Conan and Carbery. But twice in quick succession, Leinster couldn't effect clearouts.
Montpellier then replaced their 19-year-old debutant outhalf Thomas Darmon with Benoit Paillaugue and when Nadolo trampled through Henshaw, he brought the crowd to full voice when not only making a good old-fashioned recovery tackle around Nadolo'a ankles and was up on his feet to then come through on Pienaar and rip the ball from him.
Steyn then knocked on, and the crowd burst into ‘C’mon on ye boys in blue.’
But Montpellier were revived by Paillaugue, and he danced through the 10-12 channel and offloaded for Galletier, who popped it off the deck for Steyn to charge downfield. Patiently going through the phases through their big carriers, eventually Nadolo popped up at the base of the ruck, as he does, to swat through tackles by Luke McGrath and Reid for his second try, and ninth of the season. Pienaar converted to make it 19-14.
Leinster’s response was brilliant. Nadolo conceded a needless penalty with a big hit on Adam Byrne off the ball, as Reid’s attempted under-arm pass missed him. Leinster backed their superb lineout again, and then worked it wide through Ross Byrne, Henshaw’s good feet standing up Tomane and drawing in Nagusa, for Carbery to then us his footwork and release Daly. He finished superbly, taking the tackles of Nagusa and Steyn to score in the corner. But Ross Byrne couldn’t nail the touchline conversion, thus leaving it 24-14.
Thus, when Ross Molony was penalised for kicking the ball in a ruck and thus not taking the new law into cognisance, Pienaar's penalty took Montpellier into bonus-point territory and made it a one-score game.
A draw, and a 3-2 points split in Leinster’s favour as opposed to 5-1, looked probable when Adam Byrne was sin-binned for a one-handed knockdown.
Opting for a scrum, Montpellier rumbled and engineered a two-on-one overlap out wide but, inexplicably, Nagusa not only ignored Joffrey Michel outside when taking the ball into contact, but his attempted offload to Steyn fell forward.
The big Leinster scrum which followed was almost as good as a score. Ross Byrne was wide and short from almost half-way with a penalty which would have denied Montpellier a bonus point, and Montpellier had one final break out from a turnover, but Carbery bravely dived on the ball to reclaim Nadolo’s grubber infield, and the cavalry arrived for Jamison Gibson-Park to kick the ball dead.
And the RDS roar which followed translated into a mighty ‘phew’.
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).