The arc is undeniably rising for Leo Cullen and his squad after the head coach’s difficult first season in charge last time around, what with the province nestled in tightly behind Ospreys and Munster in the Guinness PRO12 and perched on the summit of Pool 4 in Europe.
Stuart Lancaster has added experience and talent to a young coaching roster, a slew of greenhorns have prospered on promotion to the senior ranks and recent form — an understrength side’s loss in Limerick aside — has been more than encouraging.
Yet here’s the thing… it’s three months since Leinster struggled to get to grips with tonight’s opponents in France and there hasn’t been a single occasion since when a close to full-strength XV has gone out and had its mettle really tested by quality opposition.
Last week’s 70-point spanking of Zebre was an exaggerated example of the calm seas they have had to sail and it all looks a tad too serene when compared to a Montpellier side that has had to chisel out wins against Bordeaux-Begles, Pau, and Toulon in just the last three weeks.
Could it be that Leinster will be undercooked this evening as they seek to perform the usual trick pulled by the Irish provinces time and again down the years when star players have been recommissioned into service after a stint on the sidelines?
“I’m always worried,” Cullen joked. “I’m worried about a lot of things every time. There is always a worry. You come off a game like that against Zebre and you would have concerns but the players, having played this team already, are fully aware of the threat that they pose.”
Cullen stuck to protocol thereafter in pointing out the dangers of anyone underestimating the threat posed by a Montpellier side that, though not as fashionable as some of the Top 14’s glamour names, sit third in the domestic standings.
He’ll get no quibbles there from this quarter.
Montpellier lean unashamedly on their physical prowess and they possess the half-back nous and finishing touch out back to present a clear and present danger to Leinster, much like the one that caused them so much trouble first time around at the Altrad Stadium.
Bonus points secured in the losses away to Northampton and Castres have allowed Montpellier to retain a keen interest in Europe and their last three domestic wins — secured by a combined margin of just 14 points — are further proof of a side willing to endure and stick around.
The only surprise in any of this is that Jake White, the head coach, is done come the summer when Vern Cotter will make the switch from Scotland to the Languedoc. That’s usually the cue for authority to dissipate and players to down tools.
“Jake White is a pretty astute guy,” said Cullen. “He has won a World Cup and has almost kept the best bits of Montpellier and brought some guys from the Brumbies where he was. He obviously knows the South African guys the best and he has brought in a lot of quality from there.
“They are very dangerous so there is enough in all that to prepare our minds. In terms of how well we have prepared, we have been building towards this stage. They are such key games and it will be such a huge challenge.”
The reward is even greater. Leinster have a decent track record when it comes to securing home quarter-finals — four of their last five have been in Dublin. A basic victory here would leave them on 20 points, which has been enough to secure that home field advantage in the Champions Cup’s first two seasons.
It’s a comforting scenario to contemplate with two games to go, not least given the comparison with this time 12 months ago when the province was prepping for a meaningless (for them) meeting with Bath in Dublin having lost all four of their pool fixtures.
“It would be massive but this is just a step,” said Cullen. “The equation for us is pretty simple this weekend: If we win the game we are in the quarter-finals. We can worry about where that quarter-final is the week after but the equation is pretty simple for now.”
I Nacewa (capt); A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, R O’Loughlin; J Sexton, L McGrath; J McGrath, J Tracy, T Furlong; D Toner, H Triggs; J Conan, J van der Flier, J Heaslip.
R Strauss, C Healy, M Bent, R Molony, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, R Kearney.
J Michel; T Nagusa, V Martin, J Tomane, N Nadolo; F Steyn, N White; M Nariashvili, S Mamukashvili, J Du Plessis; P Willemse, K Mikautadze; F Ouedrogo, A Qera (capt), P Spies.
C Geli, Y Watremez, D Kubriashvili, A Battut, K Galletier, T O’Leary, H Immelman, J Mogg.
Some sides are less French than others...
The omens are good for Leinster tonight. Ten times they’ve faced French opposition at the RDS and every one of those tests has been passed. Clermont came closest seven seasons ago when letting a quarter-final they had dominated slip through their fingers by the narrowest of margins.
Some sides are less French than others, of course.
Twelve of Montpellier’s XV, and 15 of their matchday 23, are foreigners. Leinster go to post with 18 Irish-born players, two more Irish-qualified, and just three again drafted in from abroad and for whom there are no Irish links beyond their address and employer.
Not so much a clash of styles then as a contrast in DNA.
Montpellier’s teamsheet is, as usual, heavily sprinkled with hired South African and Georgian muscle. Eleven of this latest selection presented for kickoff at the Altrad Stadium in October when Leinster failed to cope with their hosts’ imposing physical presence.
This is a strong side with everything to play for.
Leinster did eventually find their feet in the first meeting. It took an hour but they fashioned a losing bonus point from the afternoon while depriving Montpellier of a fifth via a fourth try. The lessons learned then will inform their approach tonight.
The hope is that Jonathan Sexton’s hamstrings will allow him last longer — and with greater effect — than the 40 so-so minutes he managed in that round two clash. Sean O’Brien, another half-time loss that day, has been stood down due to a tight calf issue.
Early talk has it that the flanker will be back for the visit to Castres next week but the sight of Jack Conan filling the void and Dan Leavy providing backup is yet more evidence of how well stocked Leinster are at back row where mobility will be just as valuable as presence.
Moving the blocky French outfit around more than they managed in the first meeting will be an obvious tactical gambit and a platform shouldn’t be a problem: For all their troubles in open play, Leinster’s scrum and lineout were rock solid in Montpellier.
Leinster to do it but it won’t be pretty.