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Montpellier stars Pienaar and Cruden fancy Leinster's Champions Cup chances

The Top 14 side were well beaten at Altrad Stadium yesterday.

Murray Kinsella reports from Montpellier

RUAN PIENAAR AND Aaron Cruden have played against some pretty decent teams in their time, but the Leinster side that completed a clean sweep of their Champions Cup pool stage in Montpellier yesterday still stands out.

While Leinster weren’t perhaps at their very best over the course of yesterday’s 80 minutes, with their first-half sloppiness frustrating them, they looked impressively composed as they mounted their second-half resurgence to win 23-14.

Cian Healy and Ruan Pienaar Pienaar launches a kick against Leinster yesterday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having secured a bonus point at home to Montpellier in the opening game of Pool 3 before winning twice against Glasgow and Exeter, Leinster have laid down an intimidating marker to the rest of the competition.

Ex-Ulster man Pienaar and former All Blacks out-half Cruden, who were Montpellier’s halfbacks yesterday, reckon the Irish province have enough quality to win the Champions Cup in May.

“They’re brilliant,” said Pienaar after his side’s defeat. “I think they all know their roles within the team and how they want to play, so I think that’s the key to them.

“No matter who comes in, whether it’s a youngster or a guy who’s been there for six or seven seasons, they know what to do to get the job done.

“Playing with Ulster, I’ve seen the way that Leinster operate, they’re well organised and everyone knows their roles. I think they stick to their structures no matter what the score is and they execute that well.

“So this is a really good Leinster team with a lot of good youngsters coming through again and then some of the older guys have been around a long time. They’ve got a really good squad with a lot of depth and that shows in their form.”

Cruden was similarly positive about Leinster’s chances, although he did point out that there remain a couple of strong potential opponents for Leo Cullen’s side to overcome.

James Ryan tackles Aaron Cruden Cruden is tackled by James Ryan. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“They’re a quality side for sure,” said Cruden. “They’ve proven over a number of years that they stick to their structures, they pressure teams and I guess in those championship moments before half-time, after half-time, that’s where they really thrive.

“I certainly think they’ve got the capabilities to go all the way, but in saying that there’s still quality sides out there. You’ve still got Saracens and maybe Clermont if they push through. That’s the great thing about this competition, there’s quality sides across the board and you have to make sure that you prepare as well as you can.

“You need to be at that level every week because, otherwise, it could be curtains for your tournament.”

Pienaar admitted that Montpellier had found it difficult to pick out any notable weaknesses in Leinster’s game, instead looking to focus on their own strengths, including the close-range maul that was the platform for their two first-half tries.

And though those scores pushed Montpellier into a 14-8 half-time lead, Cruden said they didn’t feel they had wrestled dominance from Leinster.

“I don’t think we ever felt like we were in control,” said Cruden. “We felt like we were in with a sniff, in the hunt. In that second half, in those pressure moments, they knew exactly how they wanted to play the game.

“They executed pretty well and put us under pressure and we just didn’t quite cope with that well enough. If we want to compete at the highest level in Europe, we’re going to have to take the learnings from that match out there and put those into practice.

Sean Cronin celebrates his try with Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne Leinster had plenty of cause to celebrate. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“But I’m really proud of our boys, especially after last week at Exeter where we probably didn’t play with any passion or any sort of commitment. I think we certainly showed plenty of commitment out there today.”

Defeat at home to Leinster confirmed Montpellier’s exit from the Champions Cup for this season, leaving them to focus on the Top 14.

Vern Cotter’s men are currently top of the league, a point ahead of La Rochelle, and the influence of Pienaar and Cruden will be key.

The experienced scrum-half has been well replaced by the in-form John Cooney since his enforced departure last summer, but Pienaar is still a passionate Ulsterman. He’ll be keeping a close eye on events at the Ricoh Arena today.

“I miss Ulster, I miss Belfast and I miss the people there,” said Pienaar. “It’s been seven years that it was my home.

“I won’t say that I’m not missing it, but the boys have a big game tomorrow against Wasps, so hopefully they can go well and put in a big performance. But we’re coping and surviving in Montpellier so far!”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Murray Kinsella

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