Jonny Sexton nervelessly knocked over the last kick of the game amidst a racket of whistles and boos to grab a draw for Leinster against Montpellier, last season’s Top 14 runners-up.
With 15 minutes to go in the second half and Montpellier up by 16-6, it looked as though any tangible positives from the game had slipped out of Leinster’s hands. Montpellier were playing with enormous physicality and discipline, and two elements of their forwards’ play – their scrummaging and their counter-rucking – had Leinster off-balance.
However, Joe Schmidt’s decisive second-half substitutions started to take effect. Shane Jennings had been brought on as early as the 46th minute for Kev McLoughlin, and while he offers neither the line-out threat nor the close-in carrying option that the Gonzagan brings to the table, his influence on the shape of the game grew as the enormous Montpellier pack tired.
Sean Cronin, coming on for Richardt Strauss to make his Heineken Cup debut, had a couple of sloppy moments in the Montpellier 22 [the pass to nobody, a failure to clean up sloppy ball at the back of a ruck near their line that allowed them to clear] but took his try sensationally well. There are very few hookers who have that sort of out-and-out pace; Schalk Brits springs to mind, but the Mole can’t think of too many others. It’s hard to believe that the competition for places between himself and Strauss won’t bring out the best in both men. Strauss contributes more in the tight than Cronin does, and is a better jackal at the breakdown, a far better tackler and has a better work rate, so it’s not exactly advantage Cronin.
Big Dev contributed handsomely when he came on: a good carry down the left hand side, a lovely offload to Sean O’Brien, a couple of great clear-outs and the usual excellent work at the line out. Mike Ross had a busy day against the enormous young Samoan Na’ama Leleimalefaga at scrum-time, and was asked to carry the ball more often in Cian Healy’s absence. He was the victim of two absolutely ferocious knee-high hits from a spirited Montpellier defense, but his performance in that aspect of the game showed just how far he has come on in his third season for Leinster. The Mole remembers his HEC debut against London Irish in the RDS two seasons ago, when he did nothing bar scrummage; he has improved almost out of recognition in that time period. Jamie Hagan still has that big ramp-up ahead of him, so it’s a smart decision to have a highly-experienced guy like Nathan White sitting on the bench. White did well when he came on, despite shipping an enormous bosh in the middle of the pitch from his direct opponent. He’s got good habits in the loose and held up his end well at scrum time. A canny, unspectacular acquisition by Leinster.
Perhaps it was Eoin Reddan who made the most impact. Isaac Boss had a fiercely competitive game, but there were a couple of occasions when he lost concentration at the base of the ruck and dwelt on the ball somewhat, allowing the smothering Montpellier defense to come up en masse. It should be said that he did an awful lot to counteract the Montpellier forwards close up when they were spitting fire and brimstone in the first 50 minutes, and that Reddan had something of an advantage against a tiring opposition. With Reddan and Jennings on the pitch, Leinster were able to move the ball away from Montpellier’s strongest area, and that was eventually what made the difference. Very astute coaching from Schmidt.
The lads they replaced weren’t performing badly either; that shouldn’t go unsaid. However, the plan to meet them up front head-to-head was a style that played a little into Montpellier hands, especially at home, and especially in a match in which all their big stars were back together for the first time. They were looking to set their season to rights, and put in an enormous performance in front of their home-town fans. However, the starting Leinster players who didn’t make the final whistle performed manfully: Richardt Strauss effected two great steals, Damien Browne had a couple of nice carries and biggish hits, Isaac Bossy was very lively and pugnacious around the fringes and Kev McLaughlin had his best game of the season. A word to Kev – leave the headguard off! Looks far more of a hard-nosed blindside without the scrum cap, and played better without it as well!
Montpellier have very, very good players in key positions, a big strong pack and an excellent coach. It may have been a surprise that they got to the final of the Top 14 last year, but it was no fluke. Gorgodze is legitimately one of the best players in the world: as the Sky commentating team noted, if he played for one of the established rugby nations, he’d be one of the biggest names in the game. A magnificent animal of a player.
Ouedraogo would be nailed on for France were it not for Thierry Dusautoir, who is – lest we forget – officially the best player in the world. His effort and fitness levels are absolutely outrageous, and he brings so much athleticism to the table that it’s hard to reconcile the relatively lean figure that can glide 80m in support of Amorosino’s kick-through to dot down a break-out try with a guy who can drive Sean O’Brien and Heaslip backwards in one-on-one tackles. He was the Mole’s Man of the Match.
Francois Trinh-Duc is a top-notch international out half. He proved it conclusively in the World Cup final; there’s a proving ground for you! Once again he had the stage to showcase his rounded game, and he had some sweet touch finders [including one outrageous spiral], two exceptional midfield breaks and a couple of cracking tackles on big Leinster forwards.
On the downside, a really ordinary performance from Gordon D’Arcy, who has lost a huge amount of acceleration and confidence over the last couple of years and is on a downward trend of performances. Would prefer to see him fighting for his place rather than assured of it, because between O’Malley, Macken and maybe Fitzgerald there are a couple of people who could contribute more offensively. Personally, I’d like to see Fitzgerald in the No12 jersey and one of Leinster’s real burners [Conway, Carr or Kearney] on the left wing.
Robert Kearney had a fine, fine game at fullback, and brought his hard-running style to the outside channels. He burst the first tackle three or four times, and is really getting back to some of his best rugby. Still a total cul-de-sac though!
He remedied his piss-poor defensive effort on Tim Visser two weeks ago by putting his body on the line to stop a rampaging Gorgodze six metres out at the start of the second half.
In all then, a good result from a Leinster team missing several big players – Brian O’Driscoll, obviously, but also last season’s top try-scorer Shane Horgan and Cian Healy, one of the best looseheads in world rugby.