Murray Kinsella reports from Altrad Stadium
ONE HAS TO think that if Leinster could, they would happily play their Champions Cup quarter-final next weekend.
The eastern province’s form is exceptional and they secured a clean sweep of Pool 3 with victory under a grey sky in Montpellier, this success also ensuring that they emerge from the group stages as the top seeds in Europe.
Though they were sloppy for much of the opening half, Leo Cullen’s side always had the scoring power and quality to overcome a physically imposing Montpellier side.
Even without their rested leaders Johnny Sexton and Scott Fardy, Leinster were able to deliver a hugely impressive second-half performance, in which they kept Montpellier scoreless, to secure their sixth win from six pool games.
This was also their ninth consecutive victory in all competitions and one has to think that Cullen and Stuart Lancaster would willingly take the opportunity to roll on with this European campaign in the coming weeks.
Instead, the Champions Cup favourites must wait until the end of March to welcome their knock-out opposition to Dublin, hoping that the Six Nations does not deprive them of any key men.
That said, Leinster’s depth is a strength and the likes of James Ryan, back in the second row and making his impact felt, point to their enviable options. 20-year-old Jordan Larmour didn’t see much of the ball for Leinster on the right wing but performed his defensive duties on Nemani Nadolo well.
Over on the other wing, James Lowe again delivered offloading thrills but some of his decision-making, both defensively and on the ball, will have caused concern for the Leinster coaches.
Out-half Ross Byrne was among the try scorers, as well as kicking a conversion and two penalties, while Robbie Henshaw and Sean Cronin also dotted down for Leinster.
Among the negatives for Leinster was their error count in the opening half, following an early try from Byrne. The Irish side trailed 14-8 at the half-time break after inviting Montpellier into the contest.
The recovery was thoroughly convincing, however, and this three-try victory ensures that Leinster finished the pool phase in style, with a final tally of 22 tries and 176 points scored over their six games.
Leinster’s fine start at Altrad Stadium saw them create a beauty of a fifth-minute try as Byrne sparked a kick return and finished the sweeping move himself.
After gathering Montpellier’s exit, the out-half hit Lowe, who threw a basketball-style overhead pass to the impressive Jamison Gibson-Park before accepting the return offload. Lowe was hauled down a metre short of the Montpellier tryline but Leinster calmly recycled for Gibson-Park to hit the unmarked Byrne on the left touchline with a skip pass.
The TMO review confirmed Gibson-Park’s pass hadn’t gone forward, and Byrne converted his first senior try for Leinster.
But Cullen’s men became increasingly sloppy thereafter, inviting Montpellier into the game with maul turnovers, missed tackles and intercepted passes.
Though Byrne extended Leinster’s lead with a penalty on the quarter mark, Montpellier soon found a meaty response. Lowe made a couple of defensive misreads in the build-up, before the French side opted to send a kickable penalty into the corner.
Their muscular pack marched over Leinster’s from five metres out, hooker Bismarck du Plessis the man to do down, and All Black Aaron Cruden converted superbly from wide to the left.
Leinster’s error count continued to rise sharply even after that warning and, again, Montpellier were happy to punish them as they sent another possible three-point penalty into the corner coming towards the break.
This time, they cleverly peeled around the back off a dummy maul, with Louis Picamoles sent thundering at the line before he drew Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy into the tackle and offloaded deftly to Yacouba Camara to cross, Cruden converting again.
And Leinster needed a remarkably mobile try-saving tackle by tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong in the final minute of the half to deny the imposing Nemani Nadolo down the left, ensuring the scoreline remained 14-8 in the hosts’ favour at half time.
While Nadolo was denied in that instance, he couldn’t prevent the hard-working Robbie Henshaw from scoring Leinster’s second try shortly after the interval.
Leinster’s forwards had pummelled at the hosts’ tryline for phase after phase, but it was an excellent Gibson-Park pass that finally provided the scoring chance, allowing Rob Kearney to tip-on sharply to Henshaw.
The Ireland centre was one-on-one with Nadolo close to the right touchline but he stepped back inside the Fijian for a superb finish.
Though Byrne couldn’t convert, he did send Leinster back in front in the 50th minute with a penalty and the Irish province were rolling again.
Their brilliant start to the second half continued with a third try two minutes later, all sparked when lovely offloads from James Ryan and Leavy allowed Gibson-Park to kick deep into the Montpellier 22, where Cruden was forced to nudge the ball into touch under pressure from Lowe’s chase.
Leinster’s maul, so chastened by Montpellier’s first-half success, fired up powerfully and took Sean Cronin to within striking distance, the hooker barreling over from close-range and allowing Byrne to convert for a 23-14 lead.
Joey Carbery made his return from a fractured arm, replacing Kearney at fullback, as Leinster looked to close out the game comfortably.
Montpellier looked desperately for openings as they attempted to keep their European campaign alive, but even their close-range lineouts and mauls were now misfiring in the face of Leinster’s improvement, Devin Toner picking off one key close-range throw.
Few teams will fancy taking on this Leinster side later in the competition.
Tries: Bismarck du Plessis, Yacouba Camara
Conversions: Aaron Cruden [2 from 2]
Tries: Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw, Sean Cronin
Conversions: Ross Byrne [1 from 3]
Penalties: Ross Byrne [2 from 2]
MONTPELLIER: Benjamin Fall; Timoci Nagusa (Jesse Mogg ’54), Frans Steyn (Joe Tomane ’67), Jan Serfontein, Nemani Nadolo; Aaron Cruden, Ruan Pienaar (Gela Aprasidze ’76); Mikheil Nariashvili (Yvan Watremez ’60), Bismarck Du Plessis (Romain Ruffenach ’73), Antoine Guillamon (Mohamed Haouas ’54); Nicholaas Van Rensburg (Julien Delannoy ’73), Konstantine Mikautadze; Kelian Galletier, Yacouba Camara (Fulgence Ouedraogo ’60), Louis Picamoles.
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney (Joey Carbery ’58); Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (captain), James Lowe (Fergus McFadden ’69); Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park (Luke McGrath ’58); Cian Healy (Jack McGrath ’47), Seán Cronin (Bryan Byrne ’66), Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter ’66); Devin Toner, James Ryan (Ross Molony ’74); Dan Leavy (Jordi Murphy ’67), Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Referee: Luke Pearce [RFU].
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