Tuesday 6 December 2016

Sexton nous and O'Brien power bolster Blues for daunting trip

Montpellier v Leinster, Sky Sports 2, tomorrow, 1.0

Published 22/10/2016 | 02:30

Sean O’Brien’s return to action is a major boost for Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean O’Brien’s return to action is a major boost for Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster captain Isa Nacewa. Photo: Sportsfile

Earlier this week, Jake White left his Montpellier team in no doubt that tomorrow's clash with Leinster is make or break. Yesterday, Leo Cullen conceded that defeat in France would be an annoyance rather than anything that will derail his side's campaign.

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Still, the chance to leave the hopes of a main pool rival hanging by the thread after two games must be tempting for the three-time champions, who could do with making a statement of intent.

Victory would leave them in a commanding position in Pool 4, and by recalling Johnny Sexton and Sean O'Brien, Cullen has indicated that he is travelling to the south of the France with exactly that on his mind.

Yet, his vast European experience informs his pragmatism.

If Leinster leave Montpellier with a losing bonus, while restricting their hosts to four, they'll still be in good nick.

Northampton Saints await in December and, while the English team have been problematic opponents before, they should hold little fear to a team with realistic ambitions of competing at the business end of this tournament.

Last weekend, Challenge Cup holders Montpellier should have left Franklin's Gardens with a win, but blew the result with an erratic end-game that smacked of a lack of composure.

That shouldn't happen to a team as experienced as White's, but the World Cup-winning former Springbok coach believes his side still have a lot to learn at the sharp end of Champions Cup rugby.

The South African has shifted his own pack, moving Frans Steyn to out-half and recalling Jannie du Plessis, Fulgence Ouedraogo and captain Akapusi Qera to his starting XV. With Benjamin Fall out, Joffrey Michel comes in at full-back, with Wallaby Jesse Mogg fit enough to take his place on the bench.

The weather forecast for tomorrow is grim and if Leinster were in any doubts about the power-surge that's coming their way, White wasn't about to discourage them.

"Like all games, it's won on what your forward pack does," he said. "The reality is that you're not going to win any game going sideways and again it's about making sure the forward pack get front-foot ball.

"Everyone knows that when your forwards are going forward it's much easier than when your forwards are going backwards.

"Sometimes, it's goal-kicking; we know last week we missed one or two kicks, so goal-kicking is also vital, but we're expecting some poor weather at the weekend, which makes it even more vital to get your forwards into the game.

"This competition is like Test rugby and if you don't keep fighting for 80, then the chances are you're not going to be good enough to go the whole way.

"We know it's a tough one, it's make or break but it's also a great opportunity for us to see whether we're good enough to get out of our pool."

Cullen is fully aware of the size and power the Montpellier pack can inflict and has named six forwards on his bench to combat the threat.

The loss of Tadhg Furlong means much depends on Mike Ross's durability and Michael Bent's capacity to cope off the bench, where Sean Cronin is held in reserve to add some impact. Mike McCarthy's return after a foot injury adds some grunt, while O'Brien brings his inimitable brand of menace to the party.

After playing just 40 minutes of 'A' rugby since February, the Tullow Tank is unlikely to be at full tilt, however, and it would be no surprise to see Jordi Murphy come off the bench around the 50-minute mark.

But, with Cian Healy back in harness at loosehead, Cullen plays Sexton, Healy and O'Brien together for the first time since they took the field for Ireland against France in last year's World Cup. If he can keep that trio fit, his chances of restoring Leinster to their place in European rugby's elite will be far easier.

This is probably the strongest team Cullen has been able to name as coach and he'll want his experienced campaigners to guide the likes of Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier when the going gets tough.

Most importantly, he wants his side to show a clinical edge after they spurned a host of chances to really ram home their advantage against Castres.

"You're looking at all the opportunities you didn't convert and asking why we didn't convert them," he said.

"That's been a big focus for us this week. All the time we're just trying to get better, so whether that delivers the actual result. . . you can't exactly guarantee what our opponents are going to deliver.

"We just need to focus on how we get better as a group. I think we're making some good progress but the exciting thing for us as coaches is that we see a huge amount more potential in this group of players."

Captain Isa Nacewa concurred with his boss' assessment.

"It's pretty frustrating when we leave so much out there," he said.

"When we review a game and see what we left out there, it's a lot for us to work on, but it's a positive sign that we still got the result.

"We work hard in training, and I think we are getting better each week, but it's about executing under pressure and finishing those opportunities.

"That's what we have to get better at if we want to progress through this tournament."

Cullen dismissed the idea that tomorrow's game will be a real indicator of where Leinster are at this point of their development, but there is no disputing that it is the toughest game they have faced this season.

Refresh

Over the summer, they brought in Graham Henry to try and improve their attacking game, and Stuart Lancaster has been recruited to refresh their ideas in all aspects of the game. They've looked good, but Montpellier will ask questions of their credentials that nobody in the Guinness Pro12 can.

Whatever the result, they'll still be in the hunt come December but this is a real opportunity to make their move and show their strength.

A win would serve notice of a serious challenge, but a losing bonus would keep them bubbling nicely.

Verdict: Montpellier

MONTPELLIER - J Michel; M O'Connor, V Martin, A Dumoulin, N Nadolo; F Steyn, N White; Y Watremez, S Mamukashvili, Jannie du Plessis; Jacques du Plessis, P Willemse; F Ouedraogo, A Qera (Capt), P Spies. Reps: R Ruffenach, M Nariashvili, D Kubriashvili, N van Rensburg, W Liebenberg, T O'Leary, B Botica, J Mogg.

LEINSTER - R Kearney; Z Kirchner, R Henshaw, G Ringrose, I Nacewa; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, J Tracy, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; S O'Brien, J van der Flier, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Bent, M Kearney, J Murphy, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, J Carbery.

REF - L Pearce (England)

Irish Independent

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