Leinster youngsters come of age to earn bonus-point win over Montpellier
LEINSTER 24 MONTPELLIER 17
Leinster produced their best performance of the season, by a distance, to claim a valuable bonus-point wing against a powerful and productive Montpellier in a Champions Cup thriller at The RDS on Saturday afternoon.
The late introduction of James Ryan for the unavailable Scott Fardy further compromised a collective already operating without Jonathan Sexton and Sean O’Brien.
This would be a test unlike any other for Leinster, never mind a 21 year-old lock making just his second start for The Blues.
Montpellier’s intent was apparent from the get-go, their big men hoovering up metres from dominant collisions until Ryan picked and carried Leinster out of trouble.
It took Devin Toner’s lineout steal and Ross Byrne’s drive into Ruan Pienaar to relieve the pressure.
There had to be something more than Joey Carbery twice kicking into the grateful hands of full-back Jesse Mogg.
A debatable knock-on by Carbery, in retrieving Mogg’s clearance, coughed up a scrum inside the 22, from which wing Nemani Nadolo made a dent before flanker Yacouba Camara spilled the pill.
When Leinster tried to scrummage their way out of danger, referee Wayne Barnes ruled Tadhg Furlong had transgressed.
There was an audible gasp of disbelief when Pienaar missed from 43 metres, surely a reflection of the unpredictable wind.
Montpellier kept the heat on through a devilish kick from Mogg, defused by two clean lineouts from Leinster, Ross Byrne nudging them up to the 40-metre line.
Out of nowhere, Leinster struck in devastating fashion, the move started and finished by Carbery with many hands making light work of Montpellier’s defence for 5-0 in the 17th minute.
It should have been the start of something more consistent. However, Luke McGrath’s clearance from the restart drifted to touch on the wind.
Montpellier were back in position and Leinster were back on their heels until Robbie Henshaw’s rush-up caused Bismarck du Plessis to knock-on.
While the French kept hold of the ball, Leinster were showing more bite in the tackle.
The lightning force with which they countered was breath-taking, wings Barry Daly and Adam Byrne combining and cutting it up, Ross Byrne taking a hole and Jack Conan making one for Josh van der Flier to hit the try-line for Isa Nacewa to convert for 12-0 in the 24th minute.
Nonetheless, the bad habit of kicking loosely to Nadolo and Mogg was a cause for great concern.
Then, the scrum cranked it up a gear to accompany Montpellier backwards for a penalty, wasted by an overthrow at the lineout.
No matter, Leinster stitched together a multi-phase attack that yielded no points, but had Montpellier men with hands on their knees and around the back of their heads from exhaustion.
The sad sight of Isa Nacewa leaving lame was exaggerated by the way Frans Steyn went around Henshaw and through Noel Reid, who recovered to prevent a certain try from Nadolo.
Montpellier came back for a scrum and McGrath could not stop Pienaar from putting Nadolo over from short range, Pienaar hammering the conversion for 12-7 in the 38th minute.
On resumption, Leinster changed their attack shape for Ross Byrne to seek out the space, second row Ryan charging forward to cause panic and a penalty.
The out-half Byrne chose the corner ahead of the posts. The lineout was just about secured by Ryan and Byrne’s kick was contested by Adam Byrne and Mogg, Henshaw feeding on the breaking ball for an opportunistic try converted by Byrne from the right for 19-7 in the 43rd minute.
It looked like one more try, for the bonus-point, would break Montpellier, Henshaw almost scampering away from his close-range grasp of a kick.
A blistering attack from the boys in Blues, based on direct runners and offloads, was a whisker away as scrum-half McGrath couldn’t hold on to Henshaw’s beautiful side-door delivery.
Where Leinster once were rocked and rolled back in contact, their tempo was tiring out the heavier men form the South of France.
They just had to keep the peddle down with Sean Cronin and Cian Healy augmenting their dynamism.
The Healy of old kicked into fast-forward for a barrelling run and Adam Byrne weaved a pretty pattern into the guts of Montpellier.
The French rumbled with power until Henshaw whipped the legs away from Nadolo and ripped the ball from Pienaar in a moment of magic that had the crowd in rapture.
Second row Ryan followed up with a textbook tackle in the open field and his take of a wobbly lineout.
The impact of Joffrey Michel was clear and present, his kick over the top falling into the hands of Carbery for Ross Byrne to lash the ball away.
The visitors had accessed their second wind and had a pop at the fringes ahead of Nadolo bouncing two men for a splash down, Pienaar dispatching the conversion for 19-14 in the 62nd minute.
Wing Byrne was the victim of a Nadolo hit and Leinster the beneficiary of a penalty which put them on the 22-metre line.
From there, the lineout was smooth enough and Byrne moved the ball into the open where Henshaw cruised the outside channel, Carbery teased the last man and Barry Daly carried through two defenders for his first European Cup try and the bonus for Leinster in the 67th minute.
Montpellier accepted three points from Pienaar for 24-17 rather than push the boundaries to give them a losing bonus-point.
Then, Adam Byrne was binned for a one-handed bat-down of Frans Steyn’s pass in the 75th minute.
This time Montpellier sense blood and took the 5-metre scrum which enabled replacement wing Timoci Nagusa to force Carbery into a defensive decision, the right one.
Leinster scrum bound tight and drove for a penalty, the lineout was sure and Henshaw was on the premises when Nadolo threatened through the middle.
There was still time for Leinster to squeeze another penalty for Byrne, which was short and left, and for an ominous Montpellier breakout which was just about tamed.
These two will meet again in round six. Leinster would want to have their qualification wrapped up by then.
Leinster: J Carbery; A Byrne, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt, N Reid 35), B Daly (F McFadden 79)); R Byrne, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 63); J McGrath (C Healy 47), J Tracy (S Cronin 47), T Furlong (M Bent 62), D Toner, J Ryan (R Molony 62), R Ruddock, J van der Flier (J Murphy 62), J Conan (J van der Flier 73).
Montpellier: J Mogg (J Michel 52); B Fall (T Nagusa 64), J Tomane, F Steyn, N Nadolo; T Darmon (B Paillaugue 55), R Pienaar; M Nariashvili, B du Plessis (R Ruffenach 77), A Guillamon (D Kubriashvili 52 – temp, 69), J du Plessi, N van Rensburg, K Galletier, Y Camara (W Liebenberg 69), L Picamoles (capt).
Referee: Wayne Barnes, England.