Wednesday 18 October 2017

Conan leads Leinster stroll to last eight

Leinster 57-3 Montpellier

Jack McGrath holds off the challenge of Jannie du Plessis during Leinster's victory against Montpellier at the RDS last night Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jack McGrath holds off the challenge of Jannie du Plessis during Leinster's victory against Montpellier at the RDS last night Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

After a year in the wilderness, Leinster will once again take their place in the European elite this April after booking their place in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup with this win over Montpellier.

Frans Steyn's red card for a high shot on Johnny Sexton helped, but this was an excellent display from the resurgent three-time champions who have obliterated the memory of last year's early exit by topping Pool 4.

Luke McGrath scores a try Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Luke McGrath scores a try Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Their mission now is to come away with enough from Castres next Friday night to earn the right to stay in Dublin for the next stage.

Having struggled to cope with Jake White's side's bulk in the return fixture, last night they played with furious pace and moved the ball around from the kick-off quickly.

Conduit

Without the ball, their line-speed denied the Top 14 side any space, but it was in possession that they really impressed. Sexton was the conduit, pulling the strings with his full range of passing but it was the young tyros on the wing Adam Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin, the experienced head at full-back Isa Nacewa - who was forced off early with a leg injury - and power-runner Jack Conan, who crossed for a hat-trick of tries, who impressed.

Montpellier's Frans Steyn is red carded for a tackle on Johnny Sexton Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Montpellier's Frans Steyn is red carded for a tackle on Johnny Sexton Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Montpellier were the strongest-looking opposition at the outset of this pool, but they've been undermined by their discipline.

Steyn's high hit was crazy in the context of the zero-tolerance climate and is the third red card given against them in the three pool games that have turned the tide the home side's way.

The impact raised the worrying spectre of Sexton's prior history of concussions, but the Ireland No 10 returned after a brief foray in the dressing-room to have his head inspected. By the time he returned, the game was in the bag.

Montpellier started with some intent, but failed to follow through.

Steyn did miss an early chance to get his side off the mark from distance, but Leinster looked like they meant business every time they got the ball and their ability to release the ball just before contact and offload out of tackles soon put the visitors on the back foot.

A smart Ringrose release sent Nacewa through a gap and, while a strong Nemani Nadolo counter-ruck averted the danger and allowed Nic White to clear, it wasn't long before the deadlock was broken.

It came by virtue of a clean break from Rory O'Loughlin who raced on to Luke McGrath's delayed pass and stormed into the 22, finding Conan who was hauled down close to the line.

Jack McGrath picked and went to keep momentum going, before McGrath fed Sexton and he moved the ball wide with a looped pass for Nacewa to run on to and score.

Steyn pulled back a penalty, but it wasn't long before the home crowd were back on their feet as Nacewa pulled off a brilliant piece of play, collecting his own chip over the top and brilliantly feeding Conan who scored under the posts.

Sexton converted for a second time, but his night was prematurely ended by a cheap, high shot from Steyn who hit his opposite number late with a swinging arm and saw red as a result.

The Ireland out-half headed for a Head Injury Assessment but returned minutes later. He was gone, but Leinster kept their foot on the pedal and 14-man Montpellier checked out as Nacewa sent the penalty over.

With the French side reeling, Adam Byrne joined the party; brilliantly fielding Luke McGrath's box-kick over Joffrey Michel and racing clear. Henry Immelman's hand prevented his initial pass from connecting with Conan initially, but the ball bounced kindly for the blindside and he returned the favour by releasing the Kill native for his eighth try of the season.

Ross Byrne converted before making way for the returned Sexton and Leinster's attention turned to securing the bonus point.

They had to sustain pressure either side of half-time with Tomane carrying some threat for the 14 men but their best chance came and went when they went off their feet at a ruck when camped on the Leinster line.

Rob Kearney, on for the injured Nacewa, almost scored the bonus-point try but he knocked on as he attempted to collect his own hack ahead and touch down.

It wasn't to matter as Josh van der Flier forced a penalty in Montpellier territory and the hosts went to the corner.

Bullying

Conan took the lineout and then worked his way around the corner after a strong maul and taking Luke McGrath's pass and bullying his way through Tomane and Antoine Battut to score his second try.

Sexton converted before being called ashore with the job done.

Leinster weren't finished and Luke McGrath crossed for his side's fifth try with a fine individual break and Ross Byrne converted.

He was called on again when Cian Healy powered over from close range after Ross Byrne connected with O'Loughlin with a fine cross-kick before Conan forced his way over his third try.

Ringrose completed the rout with a nice finish off an excellent Ross Byrne pass but the 17,585-strong home faithful had long started planning for a home quarter-final as they headed for the warmth of the pub.

On this form, few would bet against Leinster going further.

LEINSTER - I Nacewa (capt) (R Kearney 42); A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (D Leavy 70), R O'Loughlin; J Sexton (R Byrne 28-31, 56), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 66); J McGrath (C Healy 52), J Tracy (R Strauss 57), T Furlong; D Toner, H Triggs (R Molony 64); J Conan, J van der Flier, J Heaslip.

MONTPELLIER - J Michel; T Nagusa, V Martin (J Mogg 72), J Tomane, N Nadolo; F Steyn, N White (T O'Leary 60); M Nariashvili (Y Watremez 52), S Mamukashvili, J du Plessis (D Kubriashvili 52-63); P Willemse, K Mikautadze (A Battut 42); F Ouedraogo (K Galletier 65), A Qera (capt) (H Immelman 28), P Spies.

Ref - JP Doyle (RFU)

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