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Dublin: 2 °C Wednesday 26 February, 2020

Leinster ready to scrap for every point in toughest Champions Cup pool

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen remains wary of Montpellier’s array of talent eve if Aaron Cruden fell foul of injury.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE MARQUEE ATTRACTIONS of Aaron Cruden and Jonathan Sexton may have succumbed to injury, but that should not detract – well, not too much at least – from what is shaping up to be an intriguing Champions Cup Pool 3 curtain-raiser in the RDS.

The point made by Leo Cullen this day last week about this being a meeting of international stars against a crop of homegrown talent still stands, although Cullen’s group has it’s fair share of international stars too.

Cruden is a special talent, but Vern Cotter’s Montpellier pitch up to face Leinster in Dublin (kick-off 1pm, Sky Sports) with no shortage of controlling influence. Ruan Pienaar of course, excels in that aspect of scrum-half play. After Leinster bore witness to his big goodbye party in Belfast in May, they might have expected to enjoy a little longer before their paths crossed again.

“He’s a class act,” Cullen said of the South African who enjoyed just one win at the RDS.

Ruan Pienaar says goodbye to the fans after the game Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

“He’s such a quality player, he makes smart decisions all the time, he’s in the thick of everything, a really, really good player. We thought we’d seen the back of him, but we haven’t.”

While Vern Cotter has handed out-half duties to 19-year-old Thomas Darmon in Cruden’s absence, the experienced Springboks on either side of him will have a large role in managing the game. Frans Steyn departed early under a red card when he came to the RDS in January, so look out for how he balances the effort to remain cool this time around with determinedly making up for the game-changing high hit on Sexton.

Cullen singles out Bismarck du Plessis, injured for the meetings with Leinster last term, as the man who has made the most difference in Montpellier’s excellent start to the season. However, there’s no tip-toeing around the enormous presence of Nemani Nadolo on the wing after he gave the Kearneys such a torrid time in the away fixture last seaosn.

“People forget how skilled he is,” says Isa Nacewa.

“I remember some unbelievably skillful tries he’s scored at Crusaders. He’s a smart player too, and people forget he’s got a great left foot.

“He used to goal kick too — that’s one of his biggest threats, beside his size. You have to be wary he’s a very smart player too, when used well he’s world class… he’s very skilled, got good feet and is a weapon wherever he plays.”

Nacewa’s recovery from a calf problem along with a dead leg for Rory O’Loughlin has brought Cullen to select a more robust looking centre partnership than the reverse scenario would have allowed. The Aucklander has never looked out of place in any position he has turned his hand to, but even after familiarising himself with the 12 jersey through pre-season operating (on a first game after injury) in that position at this level will be a fresh challenge for the experienced campaigner.

The added bonus of bumping Henshaw out one position is that he can more readily get to the wide channels and level up the physical mis-match that Adam Byrne faces coming down the tracks.

Montpellier’s Nemani Nadolo Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Even with Louis Picamoles returning to the back row, physical mis-matches won’t be so much of a problem for Cullen’s pack. It promises to be more of an evenly matched Test quality slug-fest. And that almost sums up the challenge that this pool represents.

Cullen didn’t want to label Pool 3 as the pool of death. Instead, he looked at the latest facts and form available, and they add up to the same conclusion.

“Glasgow being top of their conference, Exeter being second in the Premiership and Montpellier being second in the Top-14, that would stand as a reason why it is the toughest pool.

“You have to battle for every single point. It is crucial: we picked up a bonus-point win here against Castres last year and we picked up a very late losing-bonus point in Montpellier.

“It’s important we are battling to the very end for whatever we can get out of these games… (getting out of the pool) is not straight forward. There are always these little sub-plots going on which make it unbelievably exciting.”

And this afternoon, a duel in which Ross Byrne is the veteran of two understudy out-halves surrounded by international talent is a sub-plot well worth investing in.


15. Joey Carbery
14. Adam Byrne
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Isa Nacewa (captain)
11. Barry Daly
10. Ross Byrne
9. Luke McGrath

1. Jack McGrath
2. James Tracy
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Scott Fardy
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan


16. Seán Cronin
17. Cian Healy
18. Michael Bent
19. Ross Molony
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Noel Reid
23. Fergus McFadden


15. Jesse Mogg
14. Benjamin Fall
13. Joseph Tomane
12. Frans Steyn
11. Nemani Nadolo
10. Thomas Darmon
9. Ruan Pienaar

1. Mikheil Nariashvili
2. Bismarck Du Plessis
3. Antoine Guillamon
4. Jacques Du Plessis
5. Nicholaas Van Rensburg
6. Kelian Galletier
7. Yacouba Camara
8. Louis Picamoles


16. Romain Ruffenach
17. Yvan Watremez
18. Davit Kubriashvili
19. Julien Delannoy
20. Wiaan Liebenberg
21. Benoit Paillaugue
22. Timoci Nagusa
23. Joffrey Michel

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Sean Farrell

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