Champions Cup rugby returns this weekend and every rugby supporter in the Northern Hemisphere is undoubtedly getting very excited about it! It’s a wonderful time of the year when teams and supporters alike dare to dream of glory next May. It’s a time when anything can happen, teams can fall from grace while others can rise from the ashes to reach the highest pinnacle of success! Will there be a new winner or will a familiar face lift the most treasured of silverware? Torrents of debates will be raised throughout the season which will incite hope, despair, joy and sadness among all of the journeymen who follow their hometown or adopted hometown’s rugby warriors! There is a lot at stake for each and every team that jumps into the fray of battle this weekend and beyond, and one of those things that I will be focusing on briefly is reputation.
Saracens is a club steeped in rich history, they’re a team that has always been known to play for each other with passion and pride. They have suffered a lot of agonising defeats in the past and also got within a hare’s breath of much sought after silverware. However, over the last two seasons, Saracens finally broke loose from the shackles of defeat and lifted the Champions Cup trophy twice!! This season, this club will have their sights on collecting their third in a row, and no other team in the championship will be taking their eyes off them. Given Saracens recent success, they are undoubtedly among the favourites to claim the ultimate prize at the end of this season’s campaign.
However, Leinster is also one of the big favourites to step up on the podium in Bilbao to take all the winners medals and stuff another trophy into their already impressive cabinet back at HQ. Given their recent success, this makes sense. But wait, you might say to yourself at this point that they haven’t won the Champions Cup in five years, so how can they be favourites? Good question and a very valid one. The answer is simple, and judging by what I mentioned earlier, you might already know what I’m going to say here. Yes, it’s reputation.
Leinster’s reputation in Europe is a highly positive and respected one, a reputation built on a rags to riches story, a journey that has taken them from bottom feeders to glory! Their reputation is a reflection of the actions they took to claim their place among the rugby greats. This team has crawled their way up through the ranks to finally get to the top and stay there. Their reputation is so strong that each and every player carry it with them on their jerseys throughout every single game they play week in week out. Make no mistake, this team wants to build their reputation and make sure that Adidas will be ordering more thread to stitch on a fourth star to next season’s jersey!
So, it’s fair to say that the incredible reputation is there and Leinster deserve the positive perception, applause and credit thrown at them on a daily basis. However, it may not always be there. Like everything else in this world, reputation is open to changes in perception and in order to keep it from declining, it needs to be upheld and maintained. Their reputation was forged from their success, but this team has not won a Champions Cup since 2012. The reputation is still strong but we can all see it starting to raise eyebrows among some (generally other rugby teams and supporters not too far away). So, it’s imperative that Leinster look to keeping that aw-inspiring, fire breathing, world beating reputation intact. And that starts tomorrow at 1pm at the RDS against French heavyweights Montpellier.
Montpellier are a very feared team in France at the moment. They are very much considered the new Toulon in terms of their squad. The owners and management of Montpellier has filled the squad with lots of immense talent over the past 12 months from all over the world, and most notably over the past 3 months. We all should remember Nemani Nadolo who is their wing/centre, tearing up defences throughout last season. This guy is huge, skillful, fast, and sometimes unstoppable, he’s become a major frustration to all teams that go up against Montpellier. Leinster faced this team last season and struggled to manage Nadolo as he crashed against our defence over and over again. Montpellier has now gone out and purchased three more huge threats for us to deal with this season. Ruan Pienaar, Louis Picamoles, and Aaron Cruden. So, essentially, they purchased the best scrum half in Ulster’s history, France’s strongest ever No.8, and a two times World Cup winner and All Blacks superstar out-half. And those are just among some (bar Cruden) that will jog out onto the RDS for kick off tomorrow.
Here’s what the Leinster team looks like for our first Champions Cup game:
15. Joey Carbery
14. Adam Byrne
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Isa Nacewa CAPTAIN
11. Barry Daly
10. Ross Byrne
9. Luke McGrath
1. Jack McGrath
2. James Tracy
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Scott Fardy
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan
16. Seán Cronin
17. Cian Healy
18. Michael Bent
19. Ross Molony
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Noel Reid
23. Fergus McFadden
There’s pleasure and pain in this lineup. It’s an absolute pleasure to see Nacewa back in the fray and also back to captain the team. He’s a very influential player for Leinster and if it wasn’t for him taking the game by the scruff of the neck away to Montpellier last season, we most certainly wouldn’t have got a what turned out to be a crucially important bonus point from that match.
The pain comes with Sexton’s omission. Our greatest ever out half and highest points scorer will miss out on guiding the team up-field tomorrow due to injury. This is a massive loss for Leinster and immediately puts us in a very tough position in terms of how we are going to handle Montpellier. Sexton’s reputation is something that instils fear into any team that face us, such is the reason why he gets targeted so much, most likely why he has limped off the field of play so often in recent times, and most certainly why he was awarded man of the match following his return over the last two games of this season. You could see last weekend that Leinster attacked and battered down Munster at will due to Sexton’s relentless aerial bombardment of their defence and slick passing to create not one, but two of our match winning tries! Without him this weekend is worrying to say the least.
The rest of the selection is pretty much the same in terms of last week’s selection, bar Rory O’Loughlin who has made way for Nacewa in the centre. There is strength everywhere in this selection, the attacking threat and flair from Carbery, Byrne, Henshaw, Nacewa and Daly will cause problems for our visitors. Our big ball carriers Furlong, Fardy, Van Der Flier, and Conan will also keep our defences strong. Did you notice the offloading quality of Furlong last week, coupled with Fardy’s pace and ball handling in contact? It was a treat to the eyes as they are not your normal forwards, they can attack the line hard, break tackles, pass, offload, win turnovers, and create great forward momentum. Oh, and they can scrum, HARD! These two players have it all!
Yes, O’Brien is also missing out tomorrow but Van Der Flier has well earned his start and will surely play a big part in the result.
Where the game will be won.
Leinster has a reputation of turning up and playing their best in the Champions Cup, and more so at home at the RDS. Every French team turn out to be very tough opposition for Leinster but the French have yet to win at the RDS. Leinster has a reputation to uphold at home and they rarely disappoint. Montpellier are very aware of this and have been on the receiving end of Leinster’s drive and hunger to win at home. Last season, Montpellier beat Leinster 22,16 in France. The reverse fixture was a little different, resulting in a 57,3 victory for the boys in blue.
I believe that this game will quickly turn into a very physical challenge from the off. I expect the first 40 minutes to consist of a forwards battle and the team that comes out on top at half time will be the ones that manage their rucks, scrums and line outs effectively. The backs will come into this game but not until one of these teams gets the upper hand in the close quarter battle. I don’t think there will be many handling errors in this match so expect a high tempo in the second half!
I am very concerned that Sexton will not be playing tomorrow, and how this might impact the team. Equally, Nacewa has not played any rugby for a few weeks now and comes back in at centre and captain tomorrow. He will need to razor sharp from the first minute in order to keep our momentum high. Ross Byrne will need to be on point and judging by his most recent performances, I think he will hold the team together and make the right decisions.
I expect Montpellier to play a very structured game in defence initially and consistently attempt to strain our defence with clever counter attacking plays in the hope of unlocking cracks out wide for wingers Benjamin Fall and Nemani Nadolo.
However, judging by Leinster’s performance last week, Leinster has a plan to take on Montpellier upfront and ware them down with the force of our forwards. Step two will involve our sublime backs who as we know need very little invitation to take advantage of open field play and cross field kick chases. Leinster were massively improved last weekend and it was clear to all that preparations have been stepped up for this season’s Champions Cup. I expect a close encounter for the most part, with perhaps a very small sigh of relief towards the end.
Leinster 28, Montpellier 23