Saturday 15 December 2018

Blues' tough start made tougher by Sexton loss

Ruan Pienaar. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruan Pienaar. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This tale of two out-halves took a surprising and somewhat disappointing turn yesterday when news came through that neither Johnny Sexton nor Aaron Cruden would be starting at the RDS this lunchtime.

Both camps managed to keep their news under wraps until the 11th hour and the battle now is to see who copes best without their playmaker.

The seasoned internationals are replaced by inexperience on both sides, with Ross Byrne stepping in for Sexton and teenager Thomas Darmon handed just his second start for Montpellier.

The promising youngster will have Springbok experience inside and outside him in the form of Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn and that pair will know when to involve him, but Leinster will be licking their lips at the prospect of facing a raw, 19-year-old pivot.

Their mission, however, is to ensure they've enough of the ball to make it count because they are up against a monstrous pack who, in the absence of Cruden, will be more than happy to slow things down and grind it out with Pienaar controlling things from the base.

Without Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip, Seán O'Brien and Sexton, Leinster are shorn of key leadership and fit-again captain Isa Nacewa is the only starter from their last Heineken Cup win in today's XV.

Many of the young guns earned vital experience last season, however, and while they might be giving up a few kilos their pack is a strong one who will hope to ask questions of the visitors' eight.

The two sides met last season, with the French side looking irresistible at times at home before producing a shambolic display in Dublin in which Steyn saw red and they shipped 50 points.

Vern Cotter has replaced Jake White and the arrival of Pienaar, Cruden and captain Louis Picamoles has added an edge that should mean they're not the soft touch they were on their travels.

While the power and pace of winger Nemani Nadolo was a decisive factor in Montpellier, Leinster found ways of exploiting his defence at the RDS and Ross Byrne will hope to do the same today.

Maintaining the possession and keeping the ball in play at a high tempo will be key as the Irish province look to back their fitness.

The centres have a big role to play on both sides of the ball, in particular disrupting the flow of possession out wide where the home side are inexperienced.

In both of their biggest games last season, Leinster were beaten on the edge and they've struggled there so far this season.

Pienaar will test them with the boot, while the visitors will be keen to get Nadolo into space on the back of front-foot ball.

With an early kick-off, this has danger all over it for last year's semi-finalists. A win without Sexton would be a big statement.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER - J Carbery; A Byrne,R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt), B Daly; R Byrne, L McGrath; J McGrath, J Tracy, T Furlong; D Toner, S Fardy; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan. Reps: S Cronin, C Healy, M Bent, R Molony, J Murphy, J Gibson-Park, N Reid, F McFadden.

MONTPELLIER - J Mogg; B Fall, J Tomane, F Steyn, N Nadolo; T Darmon, R Pienaar; M Nariashvili, B du Plessis, A Guillamon; Jacques du Plessis, N van Rensburg; K Galletier, Y Camara, L Picamoles (capt). Reps: R Ruffenach, Y Watremez, D Kurbriashvili, J Delannoy, W Liebenberg, B Paillaugue, T Nagusa, J Michel.

Ref - W Barnes (England)

  • Leinster v Montpellier, Live, Sky Sports Action, 1.0

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