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Early pressure can help to fry French

THIS weekend, in the unusual venue that is the Stade de la Mosson, in one of France's fastest-growing cities, Montpellier, Leinster will be seeking to match Leicester and become only the second side to defend their Heineken Cup crown.

And if that's not enough pressure, they are also bidding to join Toulouse by becoming only the second side to win more than two of European rugby's most coveted titles.

Losing a player of Brian O'Driscoll's stature on the eve of the Heineken Cup is of course catastrophic, but at least Leinster coach Joe Schmidt has had a few months to ready himself for the potential loss.

O'Driscoll's influence is of course impossible to replace, but Schmidt will know that the team needs to be fully focused for an away trip to France that has a potential "banana skin" tag written all over it.

Teams at this level of the competition know that the pressure is on the host team to garnish points on home soil, and Montpellier, despite being in virgin territory in the Heineken Cup, will know the importance of winning at home, as will Leinster in trying to take advantage of Montpellier's lack of experience by gaining an invaluable away win before the French side gains confidence later in the round.

Joe Schmidt has always instilled a fantastic sense of self belief in this team, and they are not going to France just to get an away bonus point loss -- they are there to win.

Leinster's Fergus McFadden didn't get the opportunities that his pre-season form probably deserved at the recent World Cup.

And he showed again last weekend in the so-called 'Fever in Aviva' what a top-class player he is; in fact, he was one of the only players in both backlines that at least looked capable of breaking the opposition defence wide open.

Not unlike O'Driscoll in many ways, McFadden has a low slung centre of gravity that makes him particularly hard to tackle, and as a former winger he is also quick over the first 10 metres, attributes that are now essential in the modern day outside centre.

For the first time in his relatively short career, and with the unfortunate and possible long-term absence of O'Driscoll (although hopefully not), McFadden must now concentrate on making the famous Leinster No13 jersey his.

So what can Leinster expect from a side that is tip-toeing into the Heineken Cup for the very first time?

Montpellier have not started well in this year's domestic French Top 14, but that was mainly due to the number of French and foreign players on leave in New Zealand and, as Irish teams will tell you, French club form is often irrelevant when it comes to European competition.

With a good number of returning internationals, an intelligent and focused coach in Fabien GalthiƩ, and the glory of playing against one of the great sides in Europe, Montpellier will be playing on adrenaline alone.

They have a tremendous ball carrier in Georgian flanker and man-mountain Mamuka "Gorgodzilla" Gorgodze, as well as key French players Francois Trinh-Duc and Fulgence Ouedraogo.

I suggest their areas of strength lie in their big, gnarly pack and an intelligent out-half.


Their weaknesses? A lightweight (70kg) and inexperienced scrum-half, Benoit Paillaugue, who must be forced to defend the Leinster strike runners, a lack of Heineken Cup experience and, like a lot of French teams over the past two years, a lack of overall fitness at this level.

Schmidt will also know that, when under pressure, French teams can become nervous, and will want his team to take advantage by putting serious pressure on the hosts early in the game.

If Leinster let Montpellier get a few points up, they will be a different proposition altogether.

The Irish back row must also seek to shut down Gorgodzilla at source as, like Brian O'Driscoll, the big Georgian is their talisman-- when he plays well, Montpellier play well.

As reigning European champions, Leinster are favourites and must play accordingly. They must also eliminate the handling errors and ill discipline that prevented them from getting the necessary momentum to put Munster away.

Verdict: If Leinster can get the likes of O'Brien, Healy and Heaslip attacking the Montpellier scrum-half, and control their go-to man Gorgodze, then they could enjoy an ideal opener.