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Leinster's homegrown model proves money can't buy everything in the modern game

“We want to create a club like Leinster where there is a bit more succession planning,” says Montpellier coach Nathan Hines.

AS MUCH AS Leinster’s defeat of Montpellier at the RDS on Saturday was part of an encouraging weekend for the provinces in Europe and a step in the right direction for Leo Cullen’s side, it was, to a certain degree, a satisfying outcome for an altogether different reason.

Leinster players celebrate winning a late penalty Leinster celebrate their 24-17 victory. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Not only was a return of five points all the more fulfilling because of the names missing from Leinster’s team-sheet, but the manner in which a home team, largely made up of homegrown talent, proved there are some things in the modern game that money can’t buy; passion, unity and tradition.

Leinster versus Montpellier was not only a meeting of the two heavyweights in Pool 3 on the opening weekend but a clash of completely contrasting models, systems and structures.

With endless financial and physical muscle, Montpellier operate on the classic French model of expensively assembling a squad of international stars rather than looking to produce home-grown talent as part of any sort of succession plan. They are a new team on the block having pumped millions into their bid to be successful.

To a certain extent, it works. They arrived in Dublin at the weekend having won six of their eight games in the Top 14 this season and have this year strengthened their resources further, most notably with the appointment of Vern Cotter as head coach, and will be a real force in Leinster’s group. There’s no debating that.

But Saturday also highlighted why it doesn’t work.

Last week, Leo Cullen admitted Leinster would never be in a position to compete with these teams — Montpellier, Toulon, Clermont, Racing 92 and even Saracens — on a financial level. You could tell it frustrated him, as he recalled a time when the aforementioned French heavyweights weren’t a permanent fixture in the Champions Cup final.

Yet what Leinster, and the other provinces, can do is compete with anyone once they cross that white line. They showed that on Saturday, if any further evidence was required.

Without the experience and presence of Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Scott Fardy among others, a youthful Leinster team out-fought and out-played their gargantuan opponents. Their work-rate shone through, as did an unflinching impulse to put their bodies on the line time and time again and do it all for their team-mates, and province.

Isa Nacewa and Robbie Henshaw were the only starters who didn’t come through the Leinster academy system while, in comparison, only out-half Thomas Darmon, on debut, and Kélian Galletier came through the Montpellier set-up. Everything Leinster have as a team, Montpellier are short in.

Joey Carbery and Frans Steyn Carbery was outstanding again. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That’s something we’re trying to look at it,” Nathan Hines, Montpellier’s forwards coach, said afterwards.

“In the past Montpellier have created their own players and in the near past some of those younger players have left and lost the opportunity and that’s something we’ll like to change.

“Darmon and a lot of young kids who didn’t play last year have this year, they need a little bit of time to be brought up to speed. We want to create a club like Leinster where there is a bit more succession planning, you need that. Obviously it takes some time to gel.”

Henshaw, in particular, exemplified the Leinster passion, while the performances of Joey Carbery, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Ross Byrne and Barry Daly spoke volumes. Young players stepping up and rising to the occasion.

When asked if he thinks it makes a difference when you’re playing with friends and team-mates who are all as committed to the jersey rather than with new faces every season, Henshaw said: “Potentially, yeah, I know it can take a while for new faces to knit when they come into new set-ups, for teams to knit when they come together for the first season. We just fight for each other and fight for everything.”

And in Leinster’s case they’re now a further year down in the line in their development under Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.

On Saturday, Montpellier came within inches of derailing the province’s Champions Cup campaign as they stormed back into a game which ought to have been out of their grasp but, fittingly, Leinster stood firm and survived a late onslaught.

Cullen said afterwards that he was ‘relieved and exhausted’ to come through the stern physical examination but hailed the way his players put their bodies on the line for the cause. They expended every last sinew to keep a fierce Montpellier outfit, led by the 130kg winger Nemani Nadolo, at bay, and the RDS crowd responded in kind to create a thunderous atmosphere.

It made for a great game and occasion, the perfect start to Leinster’s campaign ahead of Saturday’s trip to Glasgow.

Nathan Hines Montpellier coach Nathan Hines. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It is unusual to come up against a team of that level of size,” Cullen said.

“They are probably the biggest team in Europe or maybe professional world rugby. They are as big a team as you will come across. It’s a different challenge for us. Unless we can suddenly change the genetic profile of kids that grow up in the Leinster catchment area, we are always going to be scrambling against a team of that size.

“It’s a different challenge but we talk about guys putting their body on the line, but in attack we create a lot of opportunities, scored four good tries as well. A lot of positives from the game.”

Cullen also reserved special praise for Carbery, who put a shaky start behind him to score Leinster’s breakthrough score and produce another eye-catching performance.

“Joey has such an array of skills,” the head coach said.

“He is a fantastic player. He works really, really hard. We talked about last year when we played here, coming in when he played his first game at 10 in Europe and the experience he has built up, he has got his few caps and the trajectory of those young players, the guys that work like he does and want it badly like he does, they are a really positive trajectory.

“You are going to get a few dips along the way but he is making really steady progress and is a constant threat. He is so brave. He will happily put his body and he has had a big shift of games for us the last few weeks. He has been really important to us.”

Hines, who spent two seasons at Leinster during his playing career, knows all this. He knows the Leinster conveyor belt shows no sign of slowing down and the future is bright for a club who take a completely different approach to the one adopted by his current employers.

“Any player that comes into the Leinster jersey, you can bring anyone in, it’s a conveyor belt at the moment,” the former second row added.

“They come in, they do their job well and that’s the force of this team at the moment. The young guys can come in, step up and play and that’s testament to the structures they’ve got.”

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