Montpellier 14 Leinster 35
The sight of all 23 Leinster bodies performing on a higher plain has become the norm. However, the sight of Peter Dooley transferring AIL dominance and Jimmy O'Brien upgrading Pro 14 skills to the European scene keeps the Leo Cullen experiment on an upward trajectory.
Not that this sortie to the south of France came with the usual intimidation created by a drum beating crowd. Nonetheless, victory here makes it easier to describe last September’s mauling by Saracens as a blip.
Progress, by any measurement for Irish rugby, is outmanoeuvring a massive Montpellier pack after Johnny Sexton cries off in the warm-up.
Hell hath no fury like the Leinster player scorned by Ireland. Rhys Ruddock has been the dominant force in blue of late, and the currently exiled blindside led his team to a famous victory at the GGL Stadium on Saturday evening with a show of phenomenal power.
“The motivation was huge,” said Ruddock. “For me personally it was a chance to test myself physically against one of the biggest packs in Europe.”
When fit, Ruddock still plays like the teenager capped by Declan Kidney in 2010 or the Ireland captain on the 2017 tour of Japan.
“Over lockdown I revalued what I wanted to achieve to make sure I am enjoying every moment,” the 30 year old added. “I am getting on now so I have to make the most of it.”
When fit, Ruddock is world class but, equally, Devin Toner deserves a grace period before we collectively put him out to pasture.
Pre-match concerns about the visiting pack giving up 27kg were allayed seconds after Ross Byrne's kick off with Toner, in particular, matching South African heavyweights Paul Willemse and Nico van Rensburg.
Turns out the greatest collection of internationals to be named on a provincial bench were barely needed. There are clear examples that the Irish frontrow weakened both scrum and lineout when they were introduced. Training ground activity this week in UCD will be vicious ahead of the Northampton academy’s visit to the RDS.
The brightest note of all was Dan Leavy’s return to the Champions Cup, 19 months after recovering from a complex knee injury, with his bonus point try prompting raucous celebrations on the touchline.
“It’s buried a few demons for him I’m sure,” noted Cullen.
The internal battle for the Leinster seven jersey is getting extremely serious. Josh van der Flier slid over in the right corner for the first score after four minutes. Remarkably, the try's origin came from Michael Bent getting the twist on Gregory Fichten. English referee Karl Dickson signalled a scrum penalty advantage but Luke McGrath sensed five points when scampering into the 22. Ruddock and others made some hard yards before the space opened out wide.
Byrne missed the conversion but tacked on three points in the 11th minute.
Leinster never looked back. Ruddock was also instrumental in Ciarán Frawley's try but this time the score came from a foothold Hugo Keenan established in Montpellier's 22 after the winger's textbook kick chase and ankle tackle on Gabriel N'Gandebe.
Byrne - who was understudied by younger brother Harry due to Sexton’s late withdrawal - missed the touchline conversion but he would atone before the break.
A clean strike by Paillaugue made it 13-6 - despite Ruddock hotly contesting Dickson's interpretation of the breakdown - with Byrne ensuring Leinster's dominance was reflected on the scoreboard when his trademark cross field kick was gathered by Dave Kearney, before the outhalf rediscovered his range to make it 20-6.
The Leinster pack's muscling-up in the first half cannot be over stated. Scott Fardy refused to be overshadowed by Toner when stealing Guilhem Guirado's lineout throw five metres from his own try line.
The combined age of Leinster's engine room was 70. Ryan Baird and James Ryan - combined age 45 - may be the future but the physical standards required for these European battles was set by the veterans.
Paillaugue made it three from three off the tee after Dickson made another odd call at the ruck - this time Caelan Doris was punished for doing precisely what the second defender is supposed to do over the ball.
Doris and his flankers were superb but the roar of the night was saved for Leavy, who was mobbed by his team-mates when squeezing under the goal line defenders.
Now all Leavy has to do is command a starting slot. Van der Flier, Scott Penney and Will Connors are hardly going to clap him back into the seven jersey. Cullen gets asked this question all the time. What to do with Harry Byrne? How does he tell Dooley that Cian Healy deserves the loosehead slot? He always smiles, shrugs and meanders into vagueness with his rhetorical theory being: Why make a decision about anything until your hand is forced?
“There’s a good difference in age between the three lads,” said Cullen of the tricky dance between Sexton and the outhalf siblings. “As we know they’ve all had plenty of game time in various different leagues. Harry has played a decent chunk of minutes for us this season. It’s a positive complaint to have.”
Scoring sequence - 4 mins: J van der Flier try, 0-5; 10: R Byrne pen, 0-8; 20 mins: B Paillaugue pen, 3-8; 25 mins: C Frawley try, 3-13; 32 mins: B Paillaugue pen, 6-13; 35 mins: D Kearney try, 6-18; R Byrne con, 6-20. Half-time. 42 mins: B Paillaugue pen 9-20; 64 mins: H Byrne pen, 9-23; 69 mins: D Leavy try, 9-28; 77 mins: G N'Gandebe try, 14-28; 79 mins: J O'Brien try, 14-33; H Byrne con 14-35.
MONTPELLIER: V Rattez; G N'gandebe, Y Reilhac, A Vincent (capt), V Martin; A Lozowski, B Paillaugue; G Fichten, G Guirado, M Haouas; B Chalureau, P Willemse; NJ van Rensburg, Y Camara, J du Plessis.
Replacements: B du Plessis for G Guirado (47 mins), T Lamositele for M Haouas (49 mins), L Picamoles for B Chalureau (57 mins), L Foursans for A Lozowski (63 mins), E Forletta for G Fichten (65 mins), P Vallée for V Martin (71 mins), C Timu for Y Camara (73 mins), A Bevia for V Rattez (78 mins).
LEINSTER: J O'Brien; H Keenan, R Henshaw, C Frawley, D Kearney; R Byrne, L McGrath; P Dooley, J Tracy, M Bent; D Toner, S Fardy; R Ruddock (capt), J van der Flier, C Doris.
Replacements: R Kelleher, C Healy, A Porter for P Dooley, J Tracy, M Bent (all 48 mins), J Ryan for S Fardy (52 mins), D Leavy for C Doris (59 mins), H Byrne for R Byrne (61 mins), J Gibson-Park for L McGrath, R Baird for D Toner (both 70 mins).
Referee: K Dickson (England).