Sunday 22 July 2018

Neil Francis: Leinster beware - Playing Montpellier is unpleasant, like having a scrap with a gorilla

13 January 2017; Garry Ringrose of Leinster is tackled by Paul Willemse, left, and Fulgence Ouedraogo of Montpellier during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 5 match between Leinster and Montpellier at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
13 January 2017; Garry Ringrose of Leinster is tackled by Paul Willemse, left, and Fulgence Ouedraogo of Montpellier during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 5 match between Leinster and Montpellier at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It is a sad state of affairs that the greatest moment of friction in the Leinster versus Munster game took place 20 minutes after the game was over in the safety and comfort of the West Stand as Peter O'Mahony took umbrage at Reggie Corrigan's line of questioning.

This fixture has become too sanitised and the players too friendly with each other. You pine for some petulance or a random act of violence or some good old-fashioned sledging.

This was choirboys eking out a semi-physical encounter when the crowd were looking for some meaty exchanges - a long way off the preparation for what's ahead this weekend.

I have watched Montpellier twice this season - they are a very decent side. I watched them emasculate Brive a few weeks ago. Their pack is enormous and very aggressive.

Playing against them is unpleasant, a bit like having a scrap with a gorilla - you practically don't have a choice about anything and the gorilla decides when it's over.

Leinster will have to be an awful lot better than they were in the Aviva last week. Montpellier put 57 points on Brive that day - exactly the same amount that Leinster put on their French visitors in the RDS back in January in Round 5 of the pool stages. That was then - this is now.

Pinball Montpellier had come over thinking that they could do a number on Leinster after giving them an uncomfortable afternoon at the Yves de Manoir the previous October. Leinster had learned how to play against giants of men - the men in blue played pinball rugby and the French couldn't deal with the pace or the tempo.

This year Montpellier are up the top end of the table again and in a strangely flaccid first seven games in the Top 14 nobody is shouting from the rooftops that they are assuming themselves as serious contenders - but everyone is whispering that Mohed Altrad's side might do something this year, they have been very clever in the transfer market and have got themselves a decent coach.

Everyone is tipping them but - and Mourad Boudjellal will tell you this - you have to spend a lot of time and a lot of money before you get it right.

The French team have no fabled history and must look around and see that only Toulouse and Toulon have won the Heineken Cup this century for France.

Montpellier have all the ingredients to win a cup - a brand new highly experienced executive (numbers 8, 9, 10 and 15), a monster pack. They also have a clever coach and they can put out two high-quality XVs when they need to mix and match during the heavy slog of the Top 14 regular season.

Still, I don't think they are genuine contenders yet - but Leinster will have to be very good to get the better of them.

Montpellier's game has moved on a dimension or two and they won't try to set-piece Leinster to death this time. For such a big team, they play a continuous form of the game. When you have that sort of power why not get your big ball-carriers to offload?

I watched Dallas play Green Bay in a spectacular NFL game last Sunday. Dallas, with only seconds on the clock and too far down the field, tried to lateral (ie play rugby) their way into the end zone. Dallas did not make it but it was interesting to see huge men from an NFL team keeping the ball alive - something that they are woefully ill-prepared to do.

They offloaded a good second or two before contact and the support runners were really good. Montpellier transfer the ball before contact too and it is difficult to stop. In that superb Test in Cape Town at the weekend, South Africa also realised that bash with their huge men isn't going to do it anymore.

Montpellier have adapted and they have been inspired by their new architect-in-chief, Aaron Cruden. Everyone knows who he is and what he can do. Last year Frans Steyn pulled the strings when Leinster played them in the pool stages but he is nowhere near as adroit or mentally agile as Cruden. The Kiwi has great hands and gets his runners, eh, running! When the play breaks up, he is at his best. His ability to invite his players into gaps is where he will cause Leinster problems.

Louis Picamoles (below) was well-marshalled by Leinster when he was playing in Northampton colours in the pool stages last season; presumably they can close him down again. Ruan Pienaar has never really played his best rugby against Leinster. The men in blue know his style of play so well - you presume that they can neutralise him the way that they usually do.

How do you close down Montpellier's best player? I thought Leinster's line speed was very good last Saturday. Taking responsibility is one of Johnny Sexton's great qualities. He will relish the task of limiting what Cruden can do. Cruden is resilient and experienced and is strong mentally but physically he is fragile.

He has managed to pick up a respectable 50 All Blacks caps sandwiched between Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett. The Kiwis are p**sed that at 28 he left to go to France for the moolah. Yet there is the suspicion that he might not last the pace to fulfil his three-year €2.4m deal. Cruden is susceptible to pressure and Leinster must realise that he is the key to shutting the French side down.

consistency Despite the consistency of their line speed, Leinster missed a lot of first-up tackles last week. It is obvious who Leinster have to tackle first time - Picamoles. It is imperative that the No 8 gets no traction and then wide out Nemani Nadolo also must be brought down at the first opportunity. That means no dragging out of him or letting him get an extra 10 metres while committing two or three tacklers - easier said than done.

But if Leinster are serious . . . The big man can't kick and he doesn't offload so go around the bootlaces and don't let go.

Leinster's Lions props were in decent form for a first run-out - the pair of them look like they summered well but the first competitive game was just what was required. I think Leo Cullen will have to leave them on a lot longer this Saturday.

Jack Conan was almost as quiet as CJ Stander last week; if he is serious about his international prospects then this match is essential.

He scored a hat-trick in the same game in January. He won't be allowed that sort of latitude, but if this is a high-tempo, continuous game, that will stand to him. He has been quiet in more attritional battles - this is a very big game for him.

This one has the potential for a nasty shock if Leinster are not close to their best.

If they saddle up and pressurise the Montpellier 8, 9 and 10, they can get their campaign off to a good start.

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