Nacewa strikes late to salvage Leinster a losing bonus point in Montpellier
Montpellier 22 Leinster 16
With an hour on clock on a rainy afternoon in the south of France, Leinster looked like they were in damage limitation mode.
Rampant winger Nemani Nadolo had just scored Montpellier’s third try to put the result beyond doubt and Leinster had eight more minutes with Rob Kearney in the sin-bin and were 16 points down.
They were looking to prevent the French side getting an all-important bonus point, but finished with a losing point of their own that could prove so, so crucial in January thanks to Isa Nacewa’s try and conversion. A five point deficit on the table was reduced to three.
It was smash and grab stuff and they scarcely deserved it after an error-strewn display, but Leo Cullen won’t care. They’re still on top of the group after a fiendishly difficult away trip.
For an hour, they were overpowered by Jake White’s Challenge Cup winners who were fully deserving of a victory that leaves all four teams in Pool 4 in close contention after two games.
Montpellier have an enormous pack and one of the outstanding wingers in the world game in Nadolo and in dreadful conditions they played plenty of rugby to go with their brute force.
Although Nacewa scored the penalty, try and conversion that earned the vital point, it was Garry Ringrose who can take the credit for the revival. The 21-year-old brilliantly dragged his team back from the brink with a series of important interventions.
Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien only lasted 40 minutes, with the out-half looking far below his best after coming back from a hamstring injury, while Mick Kearney went off for a HIA and never returned.
After Castre’s huge win over Northampton on Saturday, there was an opportunity for Leinster to take command of Pool 4 at the Altrad Stadium but from the terms of engagement were set from the kick-off and it was always going to be a difficult ask.
In poor conditions, the expensively assembled collection of stars assembled by White took the game to their visitors; testing them at set-piece and confronting them with ball in hand.
For a half an hour, the three-time European champions held firm in the face of huge punishment but their error count meant they couldn’t get into the game themselves and, although Isa Nacewa was able to nudge them in front with a 25th minute penalty, the pressure eventually told.
Their scrum was solid and their lineout functioned well, but the defensive effort at both set-piece and in tackling the likes of Pierre Spies, Nadolo and Shalva Mamukashvili was huge and they regularly won collisions and burst through tackles.
What will frustrate Leinster will be their own ill-discipline and accuracy, particularly from senior players with lots of international experience.
Jamie Heaslip gave away the exact same penalty twice and both handed the French side the field position from which they scored their first tries, but he was far from the only culprit.
For the first try, O’Brien won a crucial turnover after Spies and Mamukashvili made big gains but Cian Healy knocked on when trying to pick and go.
Jannie du Plessis picked up the ball and shifted it to Vincent Martin who spotted Mike Ross in space and arced outside him. O’Brien couldn’t get a hand on, while the centre skipped over Robbie Henshaw’s despairing hand to score.
Frans Steyn converted and just when the Irish province needed cool heads Johnny Sexton, whose training has been limited as a result of a hamstring injury, skewed a clearing kick into touch.
From the lineout, Heaslip was again penalised for collapsing the maul and Steyn nudged his team into position. From there, they gained important metres from the maul before spreading it wide through the out-half’s long pass which found Martin who drew Zane Kirchner and released Nadolo and the Fijian simply ran over Rob Kearney and Luke McGrath to score.
Steyn converted from the touchline to leave the visitors with a huge uphill battle at half-time.
The summit got a bit further away when the Montpellier pack worked a scrum penalty for their Springbok out-half to convert and when Leinster attempted to hit back their errors continued to cost them.
Nacewa closed the gap after Mamukashvili strayed offside, but again Leinster’s inaccuracy cost them as a Luke McGrath kick went out on the full and the Montpellier maul got going again.
That provided the platform for a three-on-two that Nadolo superbly made a two on one but Steyn knocked it on. The South African made up for that mistake a few seconds later by leaving Garry Ringrose for dead and shifting the ball out to Joffrey Michel.
The full-back chipped the ball over Rob Kearney and ran into his opposite number. Referee Luke Pearce deemed that the Ireland international body-checked the Frenchman and reached for a harsh yellow card.
The French side went for the jugular and, although they coped with the driving maul and forced their own scrum after Steyn found touch, the visitors then handed their opponents their third try.
With the 5m scrum under pressure, Heaslip picked and tried to find Zane Kircnher but Nadolo read him like a book, picked him off and crashed over.
Steyn missed the conversion and Nacewa pulled back a penalty for the 14 men who were now in damage limitation mode.
Ringrose made a clean break, but Jordi Murphy then spilled his pass to sum up the afternoon but they managed to get through the rest of their period without Kearney without conceding the all-important fourth try despite yet more brilliant work from Nadolo on the left wing.
With Kearney back on and the French fading, Ringrose continued to take the fight to the hosts as Leinster looked to salvage a bonus that had seemed so unlikely. Dan Leavy thought he had it, but Nadolo held him up and threw him backwards. Jamison Gibson Park had a few goes at the line with no avail and when they went wide Nacewa knocked on.
A Steyn knock on just outside his ’22 handed Leinster one last chance, Leavy made a brilliant break to take them close to the line and after a series of carries Gibson-Park zipped the ball wide to Nacewa who crossed the line and then eked out an easier kick for himself by touching down close to the posts.
He still needed the conversion to finish the job, but he held his nerve.
MONTPELLIER - J Michel (J Mogg 66); M O'Connor, V Martin, A Dumoulin, N Nadolo; F Steyn, N White; Y Watremez (M Nariashvili 50), S Mamukashvili (R Ruffenach ), Jannie du Plessis (D Kubriashvili 50); Jacques du Plessis, P Willemse; F Ouedraogo, A Qera (Capt) (W Liebenberg 66), P Spies (N van Rensburg 66).
LEINSTER - R Kearney; Z Kirchner, R Henshaw, G Ringrose, I Nacewa; J Sexton (J Carbery h-t), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 64); C Healy (J McGrath 48), J Tracy (S Cronin 48), M Ross (M Bent 61); D Toner, M Kearney (I Nagle 44); S O'Brien (J Murphy h-t), J van der Flier (D Leavy 74), J Heaslip.
REF - L Pearce (England)