Sunday 26 March 2017

Sexton's nerves of steel get Leinster out of jail

Montpellier 16 Leinster 16

The air was shredded by the high-pitched screaming and whistling of thousands of French men, women and children as Johnny Sexton addressed the penalty kick.

He was standing hard on the right touchline and eyeing the narrowest of targets as the last few seconds of normal time bled away. If he kicked it, Leinster would claim a share of the spoils. If he missed it, they'd go home beaten and bruised.

The ball sailed serenely between the uprights and by the time it returned to terra firma, the Stade de la Mosson was utterly silent. Credit where it's due. Sexton is clearly a man with substantial cojones.

"That's typical Johnny," said Leinster coach Joe Schmidt after the match. "I don't think he was rattled by it at all. I think it helps him narrow his focus and get the job done, and he did that superbly."

Sexton's late kick only made you wonder all the more why Leinster had turned down an easier one nine minutes from time that would have brought them level and instead kicked to the corner.

They very nearly forced their way over for a try with a rolling maul having successfully claimed the lineout, but the Montepellier defence just about held them out and made Leinster's ambition seem a tad rash.

"It was just a gut decision myself and Johnny made between us," explained Leinster captain Leo Cullen after the game. "We thought we had them under a bit of pressure and that stage and we obviously wanted to go for the win.

"You get two points for a draw and just one for losing by less than seven, so that was in our heads as well. If we had gotten over for the try it would have been a great decision, but we still kept pressure on at that end of the field and got another opportunity at the end."

A draw would have certainly looked like a good result when Leinster trailed 16-6 with just 15 minutes left to play.

For much of the match they had struggled to play with any sort of cohesion against a voraciously physical Montpellier team.

Their gargantuan No 7 Mamuka Gorgodze epitomised everything that was good about their play as he careened around the pitch like massive wrecking-ball, even smashing straight through Leinster's own talisman Seán O'Brien at one point.

It wasn't just Montpellier's intensity that made life difficult for Leinster, they were hampered by their own poor execution and decision-making too. They started quite well but a crazy minute of rugby midway through the first half was a real momentum-shifter.

A Montpellier attack was snuffed out when Richardt Strauss nearly cut that man mountain Gorgodze in two with a scything tackle, and from the resulting turnover Leinster stormed up the pitch.

Luke Fitzgerald made a good 20 yards with a jinking run that left one Frenchman on his backside and another clutching fresh air, and with the Montpellier defence suddenly sundered, Leinster had created a real try-scoring opportunity.

After Fitzgerald was finally felled the ball was quickly recycled and flung across the line until it reached Isa Nacewa, who had options either side of him, but made the fateful decision to chance a grubber-kick.

It was blocked by Montpellier fullback Lucas Amorosino who hacked the ball to the other end of the field and then popped a pass to the supporting Masi Matadigo, who cantered over the line.

Montpellier were on the front foot thereafter and it didn't look like Leinster had the wherewithal to force their way back into the game, especially when Sexton missed an easy penalty after 64 minutes.

But much like the momentum of the match had been changed utterly by Montpellier's first-half try, it suddenly shifted significantly again when soon after substitute Seán Cronin forced his way over the line after a storming 20-yard run.

Sexton converted from a the tightest of angles, and with their lead reduced to just three points the home team suddenly seemed tired and panicky. The final 15 minutes were totally frantic, and ended on a fittingly dramatic high with Sexton's late heroics.

Leinster: R Kearney; I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss (Reddan 50); H van der Merwe, R Strauss (S Cronin 57), M Ross (N White 59); L Cullen, D Browne (D Toner 57); K McLaughlin (S Jennings 47), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Montpellier: L Amorosino; T Nagusa (M Bustos Moyano 67), G Doumayrou, S Fernandez, Y Audrin; F Trinh-Duc, B Paillaugue (J Tomas 52); N Leleimalefaga (M Nariashvili 77), A Creevy (E van Vuuren 63), M Bustos (G Jgenti 61); M Demarco, T Privat (D Hancke 58); F Ouedraogo (A Creevy 72), M Gorgodze, M Matadigo (R Martin h-t).

Referee: D Pearson

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