Wednesday 24 January 2018

'What we did last time didn't work' - Leo Cullen urges his troops to set the agenda this time against Montpellier

The presence of Johnny Sexton boosts Leinster’s hopes of booking a quarter-final place MATT BROWNE/SPORTSFILE
The presence of Johnny Sexton boosts Leinster’s hopes of booking a quarter-final place MATT BROWNE/SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

As Leo Cullen put it yesterday, the equation is simple for Leinster. The task at hand is anything but.

Their resurgence has garnered fewer headlines than Munster's this season, but the good vibes are back at Dublin 4 and victory over Montpellier tonight will book the three-times champions' place in the quarter-finals after their one-year hiatus.

After failing to fire a shot last season, Cullen's men have been more than competitive in this year's tournament.

Five points clear of Jake White's side with two rounds remaining, they have a chance tonight to reassert their dominance over their Pool 4 rivals.

There have been few black marks over the course of the campaign, but the Round 2 fixture in Montpellier was one of them.

For 60 minutes, an inaccurate Leinster side were bullied at the Altrad Stadium, but a fourth-quarter revival led by Garry Ringrose and Isa Nacewa took some of the impact away.

Crucially, the captain's late try limited the damage as Leinster denied the French side a bonus point and picked up one of their own. With an ill-disciplined Montpellier slipping up against Castres before Christmas, that late surge grew in importance.

Three months on, how much has changed?

Still in the hunt and with their president Mohed Altrad calling for a big performance from Montpellier, White has named his strongest possible team for tonight's game.

Garry Ringrose is tackled by Joffrey Michel Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Garry Ringrose is tackled by Montpellier's Joffrey Michel in the last match

As with the October clash, the conditions are set to be difficult and that should suit the World Cup-winning coach's enormous pack, who bullied Leinster at times in Round 2.

A calf injury deprives the hosts of their most dynamic ball-carrier in Sean O'Brien, while Sean Cronin is also out, which doubles the blow.

James Tracy and Josh van der Flier are fine replacements, while Jack Conan will pick up the carrying slack, but the Tullow Tank's world-class powers will be missed against such high-calibre opposition.

Cullen has opted not to recall Rob Kearney directly and selected the Ireland full-back on the bench as Adam Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin continue on the wings, with Nacewa at full-back as the coach backs the in-form but inexperienced pair against the twin threats of Nemani Nadolo and Timoci Nagusa.

Leinster can draw comfort from their home record against French teams. Only Clermont Auvergne and Toulon have won in Dublin in the last 22 attempts and both of those defeats came at the Aviva Stadium.

Montpellier have the lowest place-kicking success rate in the tournament and on a night where conditions could keep the scoreline down, that could be a key factor.

Although Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery have deputised well, the presence of Johnny Sexton should offer some re-assurance to the home fans.

The Ireland out-half got through just over a half and looked sharp against Zebre last Friday night, but his physical capabilities will be tested much more tonight: there is little doubt Montpellier will send some heavy artillery down his channel.

As Munster showed against Racing 92, quick ball and a pacey game can cause havoc against French sides more conditioned to the slug-fests in the Top 14.

Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile

Leinster boss Leo Cullen

"We want to play a type of game that when we have the ball we're making life difficult for whoever we're playing against by playing at pace," Cullen said.

"Similarly in defence, making life uncomfortable for them when they have the ball so we're able to, I guess, dictate the pace of the game.

"We want to make sure we impose ourselves when we have the ball."

Nacewa echoed his coach's call and said he wants to see his team learn from their difficult day in Montpellier.

"We've got to go out and play our type of game. We've got to play to the conditions. But, it's about us at the end of the day. We're looking to improve a hell of a lot on what we did against them the last time," the captain said.

"What we did last time didn't work. We've learned those lessons and, fingers crossed, we can go out and play our game."

Leinster haven't had much adversity since that day. Northampton got on top of them at Franklin's Gardens but then self-imploded, while the Christmas interpros were undermined and under-whelming as a result.

For all the progress, there is still a question mark over the extent of their progress. Results have undoubtedly been better, but the draw has been kind and the opposition less than stellar.

We'll know a lot more about them come 10.0 tonight.

It's a big night for Tracy, who can establish his Ireland credentials with a strong performance as part of a dominant tight-five.

The front-row of Jack McGrath, Tracy and Tadhg Furlong won't fear taking on Georgian pair Mikheil Nariashvili, Shalva Mamukashvili and Springbok Jannie du Plessis, and if they can negate their influence at scrum-time it will be an important marker.

Devin Toner will play a role in guiding Tracy out of touch, while Conan can offer a reminder of his qualities by taking over O'Brien's mantle as carrier-in-chief.

The Bray native has been excellent and was pencilled in to start even before the Ireland star came down with a niggle; he will look to repay Cullen's faith.

If the forwards can provide a strong platform for the backs, then Sexton can dictate the play and get the best out of what is looking more and more like being Ireland's first-choice centre pairing this Six Nations, Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw.

Outside them, the wingers are on a good run but they are up against some real quality tonight and they will know more about the level come full-time.

A bit like the whole team. Leinster know what they have to do, but Montpellier are here to ensure they at least earn their return to the knock-out stages.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER - I Nacewa (capt); A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, R O'Loughlin; J Sexton, L McGrath; J McGrath, J Tracy, T Furlong; D Toner, H Triggs; J Conan, J van der Flier, J Heaslip. Reps: R Strauss, C Healy, M Bent, R Molony, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, R Kearney

MONTPELLIER - J Michel; T Nagusa, V Martin, J Tomane, N Nadolo; F Steyn, N White; M Nariashvili, S Mamukashvili, J Du Plessis; P Willemse, K Mikautadze; F Ouedraogo, A Qera (capt), P Spies. Reps: C Geli, Y Watremez, D Kubriashvili, A Battut, K Galletier, T O'Leary, H Immelman, J Mogg

Ref - JP Doyle (RFU)

Irish Independent

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