Blues motor to home quarter-final with fine display of roadworthiness
Montpellier 14 Leinster 23
The danger in travelling in comfort is that you can end up drifting off, and getting mugged. Leinster already had both feet in a home quarter-final of the Champions Cup before they flew out of Dublin on Friday, but could have done without having their reputation being tarnished on the road. No worries on that score then.
Instead they got some valuable experience for what might lie ahead. Even if they win their home quarter-final there are no guarantees of a home semi to follow, so every win away from home is a useful tool to put in the box. "Yeah, exactly," Leo Cullen said after yesterday's win. "You can't really control the quarter-final/semi-final stage - well, you can control your bit - but not the other bits.
"Getting a seeding of one or two is partly important but you can't control the other games so you may have to travel to France again. It's one of those things that people could start to talk about. Does that drain confidence? At least you've got rid of that potential psychological barrier, because we've lost a few games in France. They showed a lot of character today, which was pleasing, and controlled the game for good chunks of it."
There were three parts to it: a good opening quarter; a poor second one; and then a very good second half to put all the bits back where they were supposed to be for a team favoured to go all the way in this competition. The effort didn't seem to add anything significant to their physio room - more a concern immediately for Joe Schmidt - and it underlined a couple of points already well made. Perhaps top of this list is the form of Sean Cronin, who got the man-of-the-match award, a pleasing outcome when Bismarck du Plessis is your opposite number.
James Ryan, with a very impressive 12 carries and 12 tackles, topped the forwards' grunt chart. And that's before you factor his performance at the set-piece - or indeed the brilliant take and give he made under pressure in the build-up to Cronin's try to make the game safe. In the circumstances it could be cap-costing for either Devin Toner or Iain Henderson to clock off on Ireland duty.
On a decent day for rugby - dull, pretty cold and, initially, not much wind to speak of - the early signs pointed to the home team being a few degrees removed from the right temperature. With seconds to go until the half-time whistle, however, they were about 15 metres away from a two-score lead.
What prevented it, leaving it 14-8 to Montpellier, was a try-saving tackle by Tadhg Furlong, who managed to hop on the back of Nemani Nadolo who had just got the ball in space.
Given that it had been Furlong who gave away the penalty that led to Leinster losing the lead a couple of minutes earlier, this had a certain balance to it. The tighthead stripped the ball from a tackle when he was on the ground, allowing Aaron Cruden to knock it into touch from which Louis Picamoles and Yacouba Camara combined perfectly for the flanker to score. That made for a six-point lead for Montpellier, having been eight points down at the end of the first quarter. So while it could have been better for Leinster, it could also have been a lot worse.
James Lowe's first 40 summed up their half. At first he was imperious, featuring twice in the build-up to a fine try at the corner flag by Ross Byrne, who was just wide with the conversion. Leinster's set-piece at that point was rock solid, and pretty much everything they tried either worked, or went close enough to working to maintain momentum.
Montpellier, meantime, looked loose and frustrated. But when Lowe joined them in that state of sloppiness things improved: a mauled try for Du Plessis, and then another lineout platform for Camoura's effort, at least showed how much damage they could do up close. So in the second half Leinster stopped them getting that comfort. It was a blitz.
"They had sort of blitzed us in the 20 minutes before half-time," Cullen said. "We just started losing a bit of momentum and sat off a bit defensively which meant we were defending for longer and giving away the odd penalty, and what happens with the penalties? They kick them to the corner, and they're very hard to stop when they're in there because they're as big and powerful a team as you'll see. When they get in to those five-metre positions they're very hard to stop."
By the time Montpellier got another sniff like that the game had gone. Two tries - the first from Robbie Henshaw after a patient build-up in the home 22; the second from Cronin off a maul - with Byrne sticking over a penalty in between - changed the complexion of the game. Another step forward for Leinster.
Scorers - Montpellier: Du Plessis, Camara try each; Cruden 2 cons Leinster: Byrne try, 2 pens, con, Henshaw, Cronin try each.
Montpellier: B Fall; T Nagusa (J Mogg 56), F Steyn (J Tomane 67), J Serfontein, N Nadolo; A Cruden, R Pienaar (G Aprasidze76); M Nariashvili (Y Watremez 60), B du Plessis (R Ruffenach 60), A Guillamon (M Hamouas 64), NJ van Rensburg, K Mikautadze (J Delannoy 73), K Galletier, L Picamoles (capt), Y Camara (F Ouedraogo 60).
Leinster: R Kearney (J Carbery 58); J Larmour, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt), J Lowe (F mcFadden 69); R Byrne, J Gibson-Park (L McGrath 58); C Healy (J McGrath 45), S Cronin (B Byrne 66), T Furlong (A Porter 66), D Toner, J Ryan (R Molony 73), D Leavy (J Murphy 67), J Conan, J van der Flier.
Referee: L Pearce (England).
Sunday Indo Sport