This day exactly one year ago Leinster were preparing for the final round of the Champions Cup pool stages. They faced an away trip to France to take on Castres who at that stage were all but out of contention to qualify for the knock out stages. At that point, Leinster needed a win to secure a home quarter final, but also to secure a top 2 seeding which would in turn secure them a home semi final. Leinster were in flying form and leading up to the match. However, on the day, Leinster had a bad day at the office and couldn’t find their way into the match until late into the second half. Castres were by far the better side but we managed to scrape a draw which just about secured the home quarter final, but alas, the top seed position fell out of their grasp. This resulted in Leinster having to travel to Clermont in the semi final, and sure you don’t need reminding how that trip went! Such is the importance of securing that home semi.
This season, one year on from that draw in Castres, Leinster prepare for another away game against another French team we also had in our group last year. Leinster don’t need a win or a draw today to secure a home quarter final as they already secured it following their hammering of Glasgow 6 days ago. However, there is a nice top seed position available to Leinster again. As already mentioned, this time Leinster don’t need to win, in fact, they just need a single point which would secure them the no.1 spot in the overall pecking order. And yes, it would get them a home semi final should they progress from the quarter final stage with a win. Now, if Leinster were to lose tomorrow and not get a losing bonus point, they could still remain the top seeded team but it will all depend on how some other games go. All in all, we’re in a better position this season than we were last year. It’s incredible to think that we have a much tougher group this season, all three opponents are top of their leagues (Pro14, Top14 and Aviva Premiership) but we’ve 5 wins from 5 and are the first team to qualify for a home quarter final.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to look at the task at hand. We face a very strong French outfit who are riding high at the top of the Top14 and will be at home. Also, they too have a chance to qualify out of Pool 3 tomorrow if they are to be victorious (and Exeter lose to Glasgow). Leinster don’t have a great record away in France, we lose there a lot more often than we win unfortunately. But I doubt Montpellier will be looking at those stats for solace, instead they’ll be preparing hard to take on the team to beat, the team that are currently favourites to lift the trophy in May. Sorry, I couldn’t help mentioning that, it’s tough not to get ahead of myself when the boys in blue are performing so well. We may be going to France to take on a French heavyweight, but it’s Leinster that will bring the Champagne rugby. Here’s what Pool 3 looks like at the moment:
The stats from the above table speak volumes about Leinster’s form this season. They’ve a superior points for and points against tally in comparison to their opponents in this group of death! 3 of our 5 wins so far has ended with a bonus point victory. We have conceded half the amount of tries than Montpellier have, surely this will be an area which Leinster must exploit. Montpellier has conceded an average of 4 tries per match whereas Leinster has conceded an average of only 2 per game. On paper, it looks like Leinster can take to the field today with confidence and turn that negative away days in France record around. Leinster hasn’t been so well prepared for taking down giants since 2012.
Leo Cullen has selected a strong team for this game, 6 changes to the team that scored 8 tries against Glasgow last week. Here’s what the match day squad looks like:
15. Rob Kearney (192)
14. Jordan Larmour (13)
13. Robbie Henshaw (21)
12. Isa Nacewa (178) CAPTAIN
11. James Lowe (4)
10. Ross Byrne (40)
9. Jamison Gibson-Park (42)
1. Cian Healy (183)
2. Seán Cronin (144)
3. Tadhg Furlong (77)
4. Devin Toner (210)
5. James Ryan (9)
6. Dan Leavy (48)
7. Josh van der Flier (59)
8. Jack Conan (66)
16. Bryan Byrne (21)
17. Jack McGrath (124)
18. Andrew Porter (21)
19. Ross Molony (54)
20. Jordi Murphy (98)
21. Luke McGrath (87)
22. Joey Carbery (29)
23. Fergus McFadden (163)
Rob Kearney is back in blue and will be a very welcome sight. He’s been in great form for Leinster over the last few months and I’m hopeful that he’ll have a huge part to play in the proceedings today. Rob will be joined by two very potent wingers, Lowe and Larmour, aka Lowmour (copyright 2018). These two lads are an absolute joy to watch and should do a great job of being a nuisance for the very influential wingers Nadolo and Nagusa. In the centre, it’s the same as last week as Henshaw and Nacewa will be looking to put in another great performance. Isa who scored two tries last week will also captain the side again.
Now for the tough selection call from
the IRFU Leo Cullen. Johnny Sexton has been rested for this match. I suppose there’s some more important Leinster games for Sexton coming up. Oh no wait, it’s the 6 Nations that’s coming up… Anyway, we have a great replacement for Johnny in the shape of Ross Byrne. Ross’ kicking stats have been off the charts over the last couple of months, he’s got a massive boot on him and he’s able to find his man and the split the sticks from anywhere. He may not have the electric game changing abilities and lovely loop plays that Sexton brings to his game, but he has a very solid and structured approach to his rugby which allows every one of his team mates to perform to their optimum potential. His string pulling has been improving with each game and this makes me feel more relaxed following the omission of Sexton. Johnny is certainly a big loss for the team but this game is exactly what Ross Byrne needs, it’s a huge challenge for him and it will be the making of him in my opinion. He’ll have Gibson Park as scrum half to help him out too, while last week’s man of the match Luke McGrath has been moved to the bench.
Our 1-8 selection is a thing of beauty, there’s literally zero weaknesses in there. It’s the perfect pack filled with Irish international quality, all of which have been selected in Joe Schmidt’s 2018 6 Nations squad. The bench is very strong too with Jack McGrath, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery, Fergus McFadden, Jordi Murphy, and Andrew Porter in particular ready to spring into action. Again, all Irish internationals! In total, there are 17 internationals selected.
It all looks good doesn’t it? Ok, we will be without Sexton but apart from that, there’s no other areas that you’d be very worried about is there? Well no, and rightly so. And it’s good that there isn’t because when you analyse the team that Montpellier has selected, you realise very quickly that we’ll need the skill and power of each and every player to be be on point if we are to win this one. The French have some very influential players in their ranks, although the players that are going to cause the most problems for Leinster aren’t from France (#littledig)! Springbok and ex-Ulster Ruan Piernaar returns at 10 and World Cup winning All Blacks scrum half Aaron Cruden will take up the scrum half position. Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo is this team’s most valuable and powerful player in my opinion, he is almost unstoppable, and such is his wrecking ball attacking power that he scored two tries earlier this season at the RDS in round one. You can almost expect him to dive over for a try today if Leinster’s defence isn’t ready for him. Jordan Larmour is going to have his hands full with this lad, it’s a good thing our Leinster winger has a step on him that almost defies physics. His side stepping skills which we’ve been loving to watch will be a very powerful weapon against Nadolo who tends to run straight to the line and to the tackle. Overall, they have a lot of power and experience throughout their match day squad. The only area where Leinster noticeably come out on top is the bench.
Where the game will be won.
I think Leinster will opt for a more tactical approach in this game. I feel that they’ll want to score from Byrne’s boot more often than kicking for the corner. Reason being, they need to keep in touch with Montpellier and every single point will be valuable. There’s no need for try bonus point wins so a calmer and potentially more ‘long game’ game plan may be deployed as opposed to an all out attacking mindset which we’ve seen more times than not this season. Montpellier’s attack will be very hard to keep at bay due to the sheer size of their pack and the power that comes with it. Our pack will be challenged heavily from the off. So ultimately, I think the game will be won from the boot of the out half. Piernaar is known for his accuracy from the kicking tee just as much as Byrne so it’ll be crucial that a high level of accuracy is maintained. But the area of the game that will create these 3 point opportunities will be from a highly aggressive scrum, maul and overall breakdown. This could be where Leinster may have a slight edge. When you think of the second half (and make no mistake that this game will be centred around the forwards), you can be sure that there’ll be a lot of sore and tired bodies in need of subbing earlier than normal. Leinster has a prolific arsenal to unleash on Montpellier as the fiercely energy sapping tussle unfolds. Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy and Andrew Porter will do a great job for us when called upon, they’ve all had a great season so far and are very reliable squad members. So too will Bryan Byrne who has been in impeccable form for Leinster this season. A nice line out operator in the form of Ross Molony will also be waiting on the wings should Toner need a breather. Outside of the pack, you may feel concerned when Larmour and Kearney look almost spent of energy. Well fear not, there’ll be Fergus McFadden and Joey Carbery ready to jump in to lend a hand. The cherry on top is Luke McGrath who is such a big game winner for Leinster. From his quick ball delivery to his clever little snipping runs, it makes him a huge threat to our opponents, and his entrance to the field of battle will be very welcome. Judging by the bench, it looks like Cullen is thinking of the long game and would prefer to see a strong finish than a performance that could wind down in intensity towards the latter stages. Montpellier are going the other way, they have all their first choice players starting and leaving no real excitement on the bench.
Leinster don’t need to win this one, they have their home quarter final in the bag, and will most likely secure the home semi too even if they can’t get at least a losing bonus point. However, I don’t think this Leinster squad this season thinks likes that. Cullen mentioned last weekend that there were some red flags that he has noticed and tried to fix from last season. One of those red flags was where he sees a reduction in hunger, drive and ambition. He knows that if Leinster are to collect some silverware this season, they need to be ruthless in every single game. Well, they haven’t disappointed in that department so far, so good job Cullen and Co.
Of course, I feel that the omission of Sexton makes matters a bit tougher for Leinster but the more I look at the pack, back three, and the bench in particular, I’m confident that this band of brothers have the tools to disrupt Montpellier’s defence, impose their strengths in attack, and complete a clean sweep of wins in Pool 3.
Montpellier 25 – Leinster 30