Saturday 16 December 2017

January will see retribution

Victory eluded them but Leinster proved they have measure of rivals Montpellier, writes Neil Francis

All triumph is built on the disappointment of others and as neither side won or lost you are still at pains to apportion who got the most out of yesterday's match.

Montpellier, even before the final whistle blew, looked like a side bathed in the desperation of defeat. Draws are unsatisfactory in sport and to a certain extent Leinster will be dissatisfied with the final outcome. Another five minutes and they would have thought their way through to what many of their supporters would have considered an improbable victory.

All things considered they were extremely lucky to get the penalty which Jonathan Sexton nailed under considerable pressure. His body language expressed the sort of certainty prior to the kick which was sadly missing in New Zealand a month ago.

I do not place much faith in the consistently inconsistent David Pearson. Throughout the game he pinged one side for offences the other side had committed earlier and therefore his assessor could say that on balance he was consistent but some of his errors of omission yesterday drew gasps of exasperation from both groups of players.

You would wonder when Montpellier go to their video session tomorrow morning whether Remy Martin can feel a sense of guilt, he did nothing wrong and his actions at the final breakdown as far as I was concerned were entirely legal.

The helter skelter of the last minute encapsulated what this competition is all about and it gave you a sense about Montpellier's intelligent and determined approach to the game. For once, a French side in the Heineken Cup picked their best team and they also targeted areas in the Leinster make-up which heretofore could have been regarded as strengths. They applied themselves rigidly and physically, and they caused Leinster serious problems at the breakdown.

Their prodigious efforts told in the last 10 minutes as Leinster, with their now familiar cold-blooded resolve and ability to think through their next two or three moves while they are in possession, got them to the cusp of what would have been just another common-or-garden win on the road for the champions.

Off undeserved scrum ball Leinster looked to divide the field. They had overused the shortside earlier in the game and they tried to get Eoin Reddan to connect with Gordon D'Arcy in the middle of the park.

A little bit of the D'Arcy leg drive that gets him three or four metres more than you would expect a mere mortal to and a little bit of quick ruck ball and surely the tiring Montpellier defence would cede to the inevitable.

This, though, was not the mistake-free Leinster that we observed last season. They coughed up an astonishing 12 turnovers, all inside the Montpellier half, and a mixed defensive effort where they missed 11 tackles for an 84 per cent return in defence told you that they were a fair degree off boiling point, so there was no certainty when Reddan shovelled a pass out to D'Arcy.

A fatal millisecond of hesitation and D'Arcy knocked the ball on eight metres from a vulnerable Montpellier line. The ball fell to Moyano whose weak attempt at a clearance with time gave Leinster one last chance. Row Z would have buried Leinster but as it was Isa Nacewa took the quick throw-in to Rob Kearney and the ball got fed back to Nacewa. Amorosino made his tackle and as he detached from his target Remy Martin came in legally through the gate and attempted to pick the ball.

The blonde flanker had both his legs in a locked position and his body was up off the ground as he attempted to steal the ball. The ball was trapped between Nacewa's legs. Martin brought the Leinster winger's legs up as the ball stayed between his legs. It was a brilliant steal and completely legal and should have been the match-sealing moment.

Inexplicably Pearson quite clearly said "number 20 hands in the ruck" and the penalty was awarded in the tramlines. A quite difficult kick on the right-hand side for a right-footed kicker. We observed Sexton's demeanour with ice flowing through his veins. We looked at Mamuka Gorgodze -- in animated fashion he held both hands to his heart, looked skyward to his God and then clapped in a show of animated despair.

Sexton nailed the kick and as he did Mickael De Marco, who had a big game in the trenches, twice punched the Heineken Cup padding on the Montpellier posts as the ball went over.

This little vignette told you that Montpellier reckoned they should have won this game but this was never the case, they had to make 160 tackles to Leinster's 64. They are a fairly carnivorous bunch and they managed to neutralise Leinster in a number of important areas but they never should have been 16-6 ahead until the 64th minute.

Their lead was down to a fortuitous seizure of opportunity when Nacewa's duff chip cannoned off Amorosino. He displayed good concentration to retrieve his hack down field and wonderful vision to flick the ball up to the supporting Fulgence Ouedraogo.

There was calm in the Leinster huddle under the posts, they had dealt with sucker punches before and it was unfortunate in the sense that they had really began to flow as their passes started to stick the more they went through their phases. In earlier days it would have been the cue for a capitulation but these are different times. It's not about who you are it's about who you think you are and Leinster displayed waiting room patience to deliver a knock-out blow to a side that they were pretty sure they could take on their home ground.

They had difficulty at the breakdown and it's something they will have to address for the future matches in this pool. Galthie is a very clever coach and he observed that Leinster do not commit huge numbers into the breakdown as they need them to form another pod for the next attack. Instead of going into a ruck and competing for the ball, which is the modern trend, Montpellier got big numbers into the breakdown and simply rucked over the ball carrier. Leinster had no answer as they lost six or seven promising attacks in good positions by not being able to counter the weight of numbers from the defending team.

Once again the loss of Nathan Hines, one of the fiercest clear-out merchants in the game, was sharply felt. Leinster will have to clear out with far more aggression and determination next week against a cloying and annoying Glasgow side that are very adept at slowing down quick ball and turning it over.

Ouedraogo with 19 tackles was the outstanding player on the park and his departure with 10 minutes to go hugely aided Leinster in their quest to get something out of this game. Once he was gone Leinster protected their ruck ball a lot better. As the game wore on Leinster's game management became more decisive -- their substitutions were the right ones and they came at the right time with Shane Jennings and Sean Cronin adding real value as the game loosened up.

The €450,000 water carrier was sorely missed on the day. Sexton looked to be in rare form -- apart from his place kicking when he did his trademark wraparounds there didn't seem to be anybody to play off or to give a spark of invention to get him away. Fergus McFadden will have to learn quickly that even though his running makes yards for Leinster it is very difficult to fashion something when that player is running at a 90 degree angle. The man he replaced always runs vertically and it gives you the chance to get the ball away in traffic you haven't any chance of doing it when you are looking at the ground. It might be to Leinster's benefit that they put a skilled player in at 13.

Leinster will come away knowing that a victory eluded them but they have the measure of this Montpellier side and will bonus point them in Dublin in January.

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