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'He just appeared in front of me and I kind of smirked as I knew I was a goner'

Robbie Henshaw’s take-down of Montpellier’s 130kg winger Nadolo was just one example of Leinster winning ‘the little victories’ on Saturday.

Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS

IT WAS ONE of the those big moments, the type of which games of such fine margins can hinge upon. The coaches call them little victories within the bigger context of the 80 minutes, and Robbie Henshaw knew his team needed one.

Just short of the hour mark, with Leinster 19-7 to the good after Henshaw had benefited from lethargy in the Montpellier defence, the balance was beginning to tilt in the visitors’ favour. The momentum was starting to shift.

Nemani Nadolo was roaming in off his left wing with Montpellier increasingly using his bulk to wreak havoc in the midfield channels, forcing Leinster to commit two or three men to each tackle just to bring him down.

Then, he picked a short line off a pop pass from Ruan Pienaar, isolated Henshaw and ran straight over the Leinster outside centre.

“He just appeared in front of me,” Henshaw, the man of the match, laughed afterwards.

But he recovered brilliantly to regain his bearings after being knocked forcefully backwards to cut Nadolo, the 130kg winger, down around the ankles before getting back to his feet and stealing the ball off Pienaar. It was a superb piece of defensive work, typifying the relentless work-rate and bravery Leinster showed all game.

Henshaw’s team-mates and the home crowd appreciated the significance of the moment, and although there was no stopping Nadolo from close-range shortly after, it sent out a clear statement: Leinster were not going to roll over and be pummelled into submission by the muscle of Montpellier.

“I kind of smirked in the moment as I knew I was a goner,” he continued. “I managed to get back to my feet and chop him by the ankles and thankfully we got the ball back. It was just kind of instinct and in the moment.

“I just knew I got it all wrong and I was gone, falling backwards. I managed to get a second go at him and take him down. I just kind of smirked when I realised the power of the man.

Isa Nacewa and Jack Conan with Nemani Nadolo Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We practice our speed getting back to our feet in training, coming back through the ruck and being legal. So I just got back to my feet and I knew we were under the pump at that stage, I just saw Pienaar picking the ball up with no one there to cover him in the ruck. I knew I was within my rights to go through the ruck and strip him of the ball.

“It was a big moment, but I thought at the time I needed to do something after slipping off Nadolo.”

Montpellier reduced the deficit to 10 points and then seven not long after through Pienaar’s boot but Leinster stood firm in the closing stages to withstand a late onslaught and clinch all five points.

Looking back, Henshaw acknowledges the significance of that turnover in the context of the 24-17 victory.

“It’s not nice, it didn’t hurt really but it’s a bit embarrassing when you get thrown like a rag-doll around the place,” he said of being hit by the Fijian.

“He’s a two-man job and there’s big moments in games and definitely when the crowd gets behind you, you hear that roar and the team gets behind you, your team-mates celebrate the little victories — that’s a big lift for our team, maybe when the opposition see that it could be a little gain on them as well, it helps.”

Henshaw was the standout performer as Leo Cullen’s side got their Champions Cup campaign up and running in style. The 24-year-old was sharp with ball in hand and enjoyed the wider spaces of outside centre, carrying 15 times and making a total of 67 metres for his team.

Defensively he rose to the occasion too, exemplified by the takedown of Nadolo, who finished the game with a brace of tries and a quite remarkable statistic of 21 carries and 11 defenders beaten.

Leinster Rugby v Montpellier - European Champions Cup - Pool Three - RDS Arena Source: PA Wire/PA Images

It was easy to forget this was just Henshaw’s second appearance since June as Leinster collectively put everything on the line to head to Glasgow next week with maximum points on the board in Pool 3.

“Our aim was to kick off this competition with a win and to get the bonus point out of it was really pleasing,” Henshaw continued. “There’s a few fix-ups that we can look at on Monday in the review, but I think all in all we’ll be happy with that.

“Obviously there’s a few late call-ups, James Ryan and Ross Byrne stepping up there was brilliant. That goes to show the character in this team, we have the players that when called upon, they need to be ready and they’ve shown that throughout the season.

“It shows we have strength in depth, which is obvious, but guys are there and ready to go. We just have class from 1-15, the squad is exceptional and we’re always looking to get better as a team.

“That goes down to our coaching as well, the coaching is exceptional in the set-up and we just all work hard for everything we get, during the week we work hard and that translates on to the pitch.”

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