Leinster eased into a home quarter-final fixture in an odd sort of game against last year’s Top 14 runners-up, Montpellier. Saturday lunchtime at the RDS is better than Sunday brunch at Firhill, but not by much; Leinster have kicked off four of their six group games before 2pm, which doesn’t do much for the atmosphere. Coupled with the lack of big-name opposition – and to speak frankly, outright quality – in the group, it has been a relatively undistinguished qualification campaign compared to last season’s block-busting efforts against the best that the English and French could muster.
Last weekend’s game at Firhill was a collision-fest, with Joe Schmidt somewhat unhappy with his team’s physicality against a fired-up Glasgow side. As a result, several heavyweight mainstays of the ‘away’ team were selected for this fixture, including Richardt Strauss at hooker, Big Browne in the second row and Isaac Boss at scrum-half. While some might have seen that as a tough call on Devin Toner and Sean Cronin, it’s gradually sinking in to Irish rugby followers that Schmidt doesn’t just talk a squad system, he uses it.
Jonny Sexton was a late scratch due to his dicky ankle, which wasn’t a wholly surprising turn of events. Nevertheless, with Jamie Hagan installed at tighthead in place of regular anchor Mike Ross and Ian Madigan taking over No10 duties from Sexton, it meant that Leinster were fielding HEC debutants in two of the most critical positions on the pitch.
It also appeared that Montpellier, or certainly Fabien Galthié, hadn’t read the script. The Frenchies are heading into a big game against Stade Francais next week, and, with nothing left to play for in this tournament, it was expected that they’d follow the lead of their compatriots over the years and send over a weakened team. Not a bit of it. All the big hitters were there, from Georgian behemoth Mamuka Gorgodze to French outhalf Francois Trinh-Duc, from fleet-footed captain Fulgence Ouedraogo to Argentine hooker Agustine Creevy, and from enormous Tongan second-row Joe Tuineau to enormous-er Samoan loose head Na’ama Leleimalefaga.
However, it was about twenty minutes until they could get into their stride against the wind in the RDS, and by that stage they were 17-0 down. Sean O’Brien bumped his way over for the starting score on eight minutes, before Rob Kearney sliced through the Montpellier blindside off first phase ball, backed himself to ride the tackle and stretched over to dot down after a quarter of an hour. With McFadden converting both tries, it was 17-0 to Leinster before 17 minutes had passed.
That seemed to wake Montpellier up, and they went hammer and tongs at the Leinster line for the next quarter of an hour. The champions defense in that period was the defining feature of the game, as time after time the unimaginative but physically enormous Montpellier ball carriers pounded the Leinster tacklers right on the line. It’s no exaggeration to say that every single member of the province’s pack made a try-saving play, either through fair means or foul.
Damien Browne, normally a fairly stoic individual, took a notion and belted in from the blindside to lay the wood on a Montpellier forward with an enormous shoulder-charge, an action which saw him sent to the bin and saw Isa Nacewa packing down on the blindside for the next few scrums, with Rhys Ruddock earning his corn in the second row. Somehow, with a relative neophyte at tighthead, a 21-year old blindside in the row and a Fijian fullback on the flank, the Leinster scrum managed to hold out the physical Montpellier eight, and eventually relieved the pressure – much to the chagrin of a fired up Galthié in the Anglesea Stand. ‘Zut alors!’ doesn’t cover it.
With Fergus McFadden knocking over a late penalty to make it 20-0 at the break, Montpellier turned around with a strong win at their back but with a huge margin to make up. Their task was made even more difficult early in the second half after a sparkling Isa Nacewa break opened up their defence down the left wing and, after several phases that brought play up to within a couple of metres of the Montpellier line, Cian Healy showed his staggering strength to power over from a pick-and-go. However, Mcfadden failed to goal the try and that was the last the scoreboard saw of Leinster.
Depending on how the remaining fixtures turn out, that lack of a try bonus point may come back either to haunt the champions or to … eh, haunt them in a good way, like Casper the Friendly Ghost. There’s little doubt that a fired-up Ulster would pose a far more severe threat than Edinburgh in any quarter-final, and while it’s too early/boring/difficult to go through the various permutations in the draw that today’s games may result in, it looks like it will be either one of those two teams.