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Wednesday 24 January 2018

Jim Glennon: Set-piece survival essential for Blues' travelling band

Furlong injury creates extra pressure for Leinster pack against tough Montpellier unit

Jim Glennon

Leinster's game in Montpellier today, and all other on-field activity across Europe this weekend, has been totally overshadowed by the tragic and untimely passing of Anthony Foley and the remarkable scenes of recent days in Limerick and Killaloe.

Axel was indeed a remarkable rugby man, and in the best possible sense too - one of a great rugby family and a cornerstone of one of Ireland's greatest clubs, Shannon RFC. While his unique contribution to club, province and country will undoubtedly stand the test of time in the record books, his selfless generosity of spirit and his capacity for doing the right thing, in the right place and at the right time, on the pitch and off it, will be his great legacy for all who came in contact with him.

The world which he inhabited until last weekend adjusts however, and moves on - and if a dark cloud and a sense of numbness linger this weekend over the competition to which he contributed so much, Axel would have been acutely aware too that there are points to be won this weekend, points which are of full and equal value to those on offer last week, or any other week.

As Leinster prepared for today's outing in Montpellier the primary concern was one of injuries, and possible selection options. While the nature of Johnny Sexton's absence last week raised questions from some, it also gave Athy's Joey Carbery the opportunity to continue his excellent debut season by stepping up another level in steering Leinster past a Castres outfit that was disappointing at best, and one likely to slip further as the competition progresses.

While the rookie was revelling in the RDS, the leafy west London suburb of Richmond was the setting for Sean O'Brien's seasonal bow post-injury, playing 40 minutes with Leinster 'A' in the British & Irish Cup. With Rhys Ruddock ruled out today with a torn calf muscle, Leo Cullen has turned to the battle-hardened if ring-rusty Tullow man to possibly accelerate his rehab schedule.

With a mere 40 minutes of 'A' team rugby under his belt, however, one would assume that the coach would have preferred to start Ruddock in the trenches again before introducing O'Brien well into the second half. Needs must, however, and there are worse selections to be backed into than the re-introduction of a hungry Lions flanker.

Every ounce of his renowned physicality will be needed too as, at its most basic and primal level, rugby is, first and foremost, a fight - particularly in the south of France, and that adage is especially apt in the context of the composition of the Montpellier forward unit today, and indeed of some of their backs, too.

Notwithstanding Carbery's precocious talents, Sexton's recovery is a major boost - in Leinster's only previous visit to Montpellier in 2011, it was his last-gasp penalty that snatched a draw in what amounted to something of a smash-and-grab raid, and his subsequent season-long sojourn at Racing will have given him a particular insight into just what makes French teams tick.

This Montpellier squad is a hugely physical and intimidating one and the outhalf knows he can expect an early introduction, without the pleasantries, to his opposite number Francois Steyn as well as the strong home back-row of Ouadraogo, Qera, and Pierre Spies - not to mention big wing Nemani Nadolo, who can be expected to roam infield looking for contact. Robbie Henshaw and Jamie Heaslip are two experienced operators either side of Sexton and scrumhalf Luke McGrath and openside flanker Josh van der Flier, will have roles to play too, not that the outhalf would be shying away from any of the rough stuff.

The challenge awaiting Leinster today will not be a typically French one - if such a thing exists anymore given the predominance of foreign players in the Top 14. World Cup-winning Springbok coach Jake White, having usurped Fabien Galthie at management level, has instilled a pragmatic, and distinctly South African, influence over what is an increasingly southern hemisphere-dominated squad, leavened with a robustly-healthy Georgian contingent up front.

While the absence through injury of Bismarck du Plessis is a setback, the presence of his elder brother Jannie at prop opposite Cian Healy, together with Spies and Steyn among others, gives White's team the look of a highly-functional unit, and one particularly difficult to break down.

The set-piece will be a key battleground, and an area where Leinster may well struggle for parity - while fortunate to have a replacement of Mike Ross' quality and vast experience to call on, the loss through injury of Tadhg Furlong is a major blow in today's particular circumstances.

Put simply, Ross needs to stay upright and on the pitch for as long as is physically possible for him to do so - Montpellier will have identified him as their prime target, and he has a tough afternoon in store. It's by no means a new experience for him, having delivered heroically in similar situations countless times in the past.

It's difficult to know really what to expect in terms of a final outcome - the depth of Ross' resilience will have a major bearing as will the ability of skipper Isa Nacewa, Sexton, Devin Toner, Heaslip and Henshaw to steer the team through what's bound to be a frantic opening period.

Leinster came away from Montpellier in 2011 with two crucial away points from the draw. This time a losing bonus point, which would give them six points from the opening two games, would probably be a satisfactory enough outcome, not that any of the group will admit it.

Survival at the scrum, solidity on their own lineout and control across numbers 8-12 will be very much the order of the day, and if they can weather that tempestuous opening period and play territory smartly, anything is possible.

Furlong's injury may well be crucial - the capacity of his starting colleagues to withstand a similar fate for as long as possible will be equally so - but a win would put Leinster in an excellent position going into back-to-back games against Northampton pre-Christmas, and I'd be quietly optimistic.

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