Montpellier 14 - Leinster 23: To think, just a few months back, this was the Pool of Death to kill all other Pools of death.
And now, as January comes to a close, Leinster finish top of the Champions Cup seedings, with six wins from six — even if the vagaries of the draw has pitted them against champions Saracens in a quarter-final in Dublin.
Their first win on French soil in three seasons over Montpellier was a triumph for squad depth and the depth of intelligence and adaptability in the Leinster team and coaching staff.
Trailing 14-8 at halftime to a rampant Montpellier side, the visitors regrouped in the dressing room, denied their hosts too much easy possession and stopped gifting turnovers. They reaped the rewards.
Two tries from Robbie Henshaw and Sean Cronin — with a well-timed man of the match display to celebrate his return to the Ireland squad — pulled Leinster clear, and keeping the French scoreless after the break was no mean feat either.
This is only the second time the hosts have lost at home this season, and ensures Leinster’s chance of a home semi-final has improved significantly.
“The European pool stages are such a tough thing to get out of — so we set little goals like that, and we’ve achieved that,” said Isa Nacewa, the Leinster captain.
“We’re just glad to get out of that pool, that’s as far as we look, and it’s massive step up now to go a bit further.”
On the evidence of the pool stage, however, everyone else has to make a step up to beat Leinster - including the defending champions.
They’ve found the right key to open each door, be it home against Montpellier or away to Glasgow and delivered two battling displays — with different skills on show in both — to beat Exeter Chiefs home and away.
Glasgow were brushed aside at the RDS but this was a tougher test — particularly with Johnny Sexton and Scott Fardy given the weekend off.
Jordan Larmour started on the wing, with James Lowe on the opposite side, while Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park provided a new halfback partnership.
James Ryan made his first European start on the road, but had Devin Toner’s wise head for company.
The James Lowe show began early on with the Kiwi playing his part in the build-up to Ross Byrne’s fifth-minute try.
A theory has already developed around the former Maori All Black — if he touches the ball twice in the build up, it’ll end up a try. Byrne touched down unopposed in the corner to give the visitors a perfect start.
Byrne’s penalty on 20 minutes, reward for Leinster’s strength at the breakdown, pulled the province eight clear, but the game soon turned, with Lowe’s ‘serial offloading’, to use Shane Horgan’s words, occurring too often in the wrong area.
Montpelllier forced a five-metre lineout from Aaron Cruden’s kick and Bismarck du Plessis claimed the try from a maul Leinster just could not stop.
They were warned but didn’t learn their lesson and just over ten minutes later, Tadhg Furlong conceded another penalty, leading to a repeat maul performance — and another try, this time finished by Yacouba Camara.
Two conversions by Cruden gave the hosts a six-point half time lead, but if the game was not won in the first half – it was won in the dressing room.
“We made an error and we knew what was coming from them when they kicked to the corner, but they perform it so well,” Nacewa said.
17 tackles 💪
0 missed 👌January 20, 2018
“We just had to look after our own shop and not give them the ball and give them so many easy turnovers. We had to calm things down, take a breath.”
Montpellier weren’t given much time to breathe in the second half, as Leinster pushed on to a determined victory, with the strong bench making a significant impact.
Robbie Henshaw rewarded the solid forward surge by his pack, sidestepping inside Nemani Nadolo six minutes after the break, and Byrne’s 50th minute penalty gave the visitors a lead they would not relinquish. They forced a five-metre lineout five minutes later and they gave the French a dose of their own maul medicine, with Cronin touching down.
“There was a big focus on how we struggled coming over here in the last few years so it was a big goal to prove we’re going forward as a squad by winning here,” Cronin said. “They’re a quality side, we needed to match them in the scrum and maul, so to come here and get a result, we’re very pleased.
“We’re going in the right
direction but there’s always areas we want to work on — we won’t be happy with our maul defence.
“But we got the win here, we’re progressing even with lads changing in and out, it’s a good place to be.”
Fall, Nagusa, Steyn, Serfontein, Nadolo, Cruden, Pienaar, Nariashvili, B. du Plessis, Guillamon, Van Rensburg, Mikautadze, Galletier, Camara, Picamoles.
Mogg for Nagusa (54), Tomane for Steyn (67), Aprasidze for Pienaar (76), Watremez for Nariashvili (60), Ruffenach for B. du Plessis (73), Haouas for Guillamon (54), Delannoy for Van Rensburg (73), Ouedraogo for Camara (60).
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.
J Carbery for R. Kearney (58), F McFadden for Lowe (69), J. McGrath for Healy (47), A Porter for Cronin (66), B. Byrne for Furlong (66), R Molony for Ryan (74), J. Murphy for Leavy (67).
L Pearce (England)
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