Leinster tyros target another French first

Photo: David Rogers/Getty

Girvan Dempsey sat on the bench in Murrayfield the day Leinster claimed a first Heineken Cup.

He came on for the last quarter in Croke Park weeks earlier when the province trounced Munster in front of a world record club crowd of over 82,000 and he was starting full-back when Toulouse were bested 41-35 in Le Stadium back in 2006.

None of them rank ahead of a win against Montferrand in December of 2002.

“We had a staff meeting there last week,” the Leinster backs coach explained, “and one of the first questions going around the room was asking us of our memories of European rugby within Leinster and that one was mine: our first win on French soil.

“We probably had about 15 parents at the game in a pocket of the stands up in the far corner. That was it. We got the victory. It was a memorable day. That mental challenge of having that win over in France was gone. We knew that we could do it from there.”

This was a different era. Matt Williams was head coach, the jerseys were more… forgiving and Dempsey and Denis Hickie still had hair. Sixteen years on and another Leinster team finds itself flying to France looking to make that first big leap.

Many among Leo Cullen’s squad have won on the continent before but so many of the Dan Leavys, Josh van der Fliers and Jordan Larmours haven’t. So, this feels like a box this new generation needs to tick if a fourth star is to be stitched under the harp.

“You look at last year: we didn’t win in France last year, which is important,” said Dempsey. “We know that it is still is a tough place to go and play. French teams at home, traditionally, are very strong. We recognise that. It is going to be a very, very tough ask.

“We feel that our game is improving sufficiently that we can cause them a lot of problems.

“There are opportunities in terms of the way they defend that we can exploit and, hopefully, score some points.”

It was in France where their ambitions curdled last term.

Defeat to Montpellier in October left them with an uphill climb, a round six draw away to Castres cost them a home semi-final and then a disastrously slow start in Lyon against Clermont Auvergne ended their journey at that penultimate stage.

It’s hard to see this Leinster batch waiting, like Dempsey’s vintage, another half-dozen years after a first French win to claim a Champions Cup but they pitch up at the Altrad Stadium on Saturday with their recent Gallic trials to the forefront of their minds.

Montpellier in October’s rain 15 months ago proved to be especially taxing, with a late Isa Nacewa penalty scratching a losing bonus point out of a difficult day’s work, and only Exeter Chiefs have managed to best the French side at home this campaign.

“Look, across the board they are a star-studded pack. They have a powerful pack, they have strong, big backs. It will be a big challenge but we feel we have made strides in our own game defensively over the past number of weeks.”

Very true. Leinster’s blitzkrieg defending has proven brutally effective of late but it is their attacking game that has really caught the eye. Dempsey though wasn’t best pleased by how loose some of it was in last week’s beatdown of Glasgow at the RDS.

“That Harlem Globetrotters stuff got a bit contagious. We got a bit loose in possession and that allowed Glasgow a couple of easy scores, which was frustrating. As long as we stick to our systems and what we’re doing, we’re in a pretty good place.”

Predicting Montpellier’s side from a multinational and talented lineup isn’t straightforward. Dempsey has heard talk that Ruan Pienaar will be reintroduced this week, for one, but this is a week more than most where Leinster’s focus will be inward.


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