"...Ross Byrne was actually facing my part of the stand when he looked up and planted a kick towards the corner...it landed perfectly in the arms of Dave Kearney…an unbelievable try in any circumstances..."
A pinpoint crossfield kick from Ross Byrne to Dave Kearney in the corner for a try in a pivotal European encounter where both Johnny Sexton and James Lowe were unavailable? Sure, we’ve seen it before. Although that’s where the similarities end, since as you can see from the above quote, I was actually there in the stands to witness the one that happened back in the good ol’ COVID-free days.
But even things on that front are starting to look up now with vaccines being rolled out so hopefully we’ll be back in our rightful place clad in blue before long, and in the meantime, if this performance is anything to go by, we have a lot to look forward to despite the, shall we say, “unique” nature of this season’s competition.
This latest version of a Byrne/Kearney combo might not have secured us the bonus point try but in many ways it was just as critical. Even though we were in complete control of pretty much every secondary statistic you can dream of, the primary one on the scoreboard had us just seven points ahead and what’s more, our French hosts had just trapped us in a choke tackle which definitely wasn’t a very good sign at all.
But from the resulting scrum, the defining element which led to this comfortable victory really kicked in - the Leinster defence. It had been a factor in the match right from the very kick off even when it wasn’t being used.
Montpellier haven’t had everything their own way in the Top 14 this season but one area they have had success has been with a solid maul game from lineouts in the opposition 22. Here however, even when behind by double digits on the scoreboard they kept opting for three point chances because they knew how stingy Leinster’s blue wall could be.
Then we had our own approach from the start, which involved constantly opting to kick back to the opposition. I know many do a facepalm whenever they see this tactic, but for me if it’s done accurately in the right match situation it can be as potent a force as any, and we proved that theory here.
And while Luke McGrath was still showing his rich vein of form in every aspect of his game, his box kicks weren’t the only positive examples of us putting boot to ball. Ross Byrne was in on the act to, but even that wasn’t it. Making their European debuts were Ciaran Frawley and Jimmy O’Brien and just as they had done for us in the opening series of the Pro14 campaign, they were able to find the right areas to turn the Montpellier defence around, all with the right amount of support to meet the guy unfortunate to find himself with the ball.
Just three minutes were gone on the clock when a bout of midfield kick tennis led to a knockon which gave us our first scrum of the day. Even though we started without Tadhg Furlong (injured) and Andrew Porter (probably knackered after prolonged test shifts), Michael Bent locked down our setpiece to win a penalty although Luke didn’t need it as he emerged from a group of would-be tacklers to bring it all the way to the 22. From there it was the relentless motion of front foot ball back and forth across the park which eventually opened up the space for Josh van der Flier to put us on the board in the corner.
All this kicking from the boys in blue was evidence we had perfect faith in our own defending, and what’s more, we weren’t just doing it at midfield. As the clock moved into the second quarter we started a series of pinpoint kicks into the deeper areas of the Montpellier 22, each of which was putting them under immense pressure and forced them to give it back to us.
Eventually we had a situation where loose head Peter Dooley, also a supposed “third string prop”, was able to show off his handling skills with a no look pass that wasn’t his first of the day and with skipper Rhys Ruddock also demonstrating quick hands, Frawley was able to dot down in the opposite corner for try number two.
Yet like I said, despite all this dominance, we were making a few little niggly mistakes here and there like unforced knockons, missed placekicks, wonky lineouts and unnecessary penalties which meant Benoit Paillaugue was able to pop over three pointers to keep his side relatively close. Which brings me back to their scrum following what must have seemed like a morale-boosting choke tackle led by their centre Yvan Reilhac on 34 minutes.
This time our defence had a chance to actually show how it got its reputation, zeroing in on the MHR backs until Caelan Doris managed to rip it free and with JVDF spotting some more space ahead of him, he powered towards their 22 putting us on the front foot. With the home defence scrambling to get into position, Ross Byrne spotted Dave Kearney in space on the far side of the pitch and didn’t hesitate to put it on a string to him.
Even then it took a defensive effort for us to preserve our 14-point lead going into a break as our hosts finally worked their way to a lineout deep in our 22 but thanks to an excellent leap by Scott Fardy and a high tackle on Luke McGrath we were able to go into the break with a margin we certainly deserved.
“All” that was left for us was to keep ourselves ahead and get that fourth try. This contrived competition format, with just 4 matches each in a pool of 12, means that every match point was valuable - I really hope this doesn’t happen but it seems possible that a team can win all their matches yet still only end up with knockout rugby via the Challenge Cup. And when Paillaugue opened the 2nd half scoring with a penalty and our mistakes kept happening all the way to the 60th minute, the bonus started to look like a chore.
But eventually the kicking started to pay off again as a high ball from Ross Byrne from his own 22 came down around the halfway line where it was brilliantly caught by Robbie Henshaw - not his only big contribution on the day as his tandem with Frawley well was a big part of our defence, yet certainly his most visible one - and a couple of penalties later there was Ross’s younger brother Harry, another Euro debutant and a late replacement on the bench for Sexton, restoring our lead to two converted tries.
His next involvement was a territory kick that only just barely went too long and although it looked like Montpellier had broken through shortly after the resulting lineout back in our half, even referee Karl Dickson was showing respect for our defence when he deduced the gap was only there because a clearing out player held on to his man just a bit too long.
Another penalty further up the pitch, this time for a deliberate knock on, quickly put us back into their 22 and now we had the chance to get our own maul working, no doubt against a Montpellier pack which knew this was never going to be their day, and although we were stopped just short of their line, who else could possibly manage to dive over for the bonus point try but Dan Leavy, who’s return to top level rugby must certainly catch the eye of Andy Farrell.
Of course if we’re talking of performances to earn test recognition we must also throw in the name of Rhys Ruddock, who barged his way to yet another Player of the Match gong. Although the starting XV all made decent contributions to a man in building the lead, Rhys was literally leading us from the front and is in the form of his life. I’ve said before that I can see why it won’t be easy for him to actually start for Ireland even now but surely he at very least has earned a call up.
So despite Harry missing the conversion, if the result wasn't beyond doubt already, it certainly was with 10 minutes left on the clock. I’d be more inclined to praise the home side for nicking a try of their own before the end - they had some decent performances of their own on the day like centres Vincent and Reilhac and especially their fullback Rattez.
Yet even when winger Gabriel N'gandebe eventually crossed our line, it was only after a series of phases and scrums on our line had eaten about five minutes off the clock, and an ankle tap by Frawley meant the angle for the conversion was too much for Paillaugue to make the scoreline a bit more respectable.
And to be fair they didn’t give up even then, as their 9 bravely attempted a crossfield kick in his own 22 with the clock ticking down - unfortunately for him it only managed to find Henshaw before bouncing perfectly for Jimmy O’Brien to retrieve and easily canter over the line to end things in perfect fashion for Leinster.
Going into this match, the narrative around our managing yet another 100% start to a season was all about the standard of the Pro14 not being good enough. Maybe Montpellier aren’t setting their own domestic competition alight this season but when you look over this 80 minutes it’s clear that despite making some mistakes at times, our overall cohesion and confidence levels were exactly where they should be.
And don’t forget - that was all with a lineup which didn't have anywhere near the amount of test returnees starting for us as we’d normally like to have at the start of a Champions Cup campaign. Instead we were able to showcase some names that could well be pushing for the next level before long and still managed to remain in control pretty much from start to finish.
There were mixed fortunes for the other provinces this weekend, with only Munster also getting a win. That said, Connacht will feel better about their losing bonus point against Ffrench opponents that Ulster will. Neither will find an easy path to the final 8; while losing one match doesn't totally rule out your chances, losing one home match just might.
Next up for Leinster are the Northampton Saints, who aren’t exactly having the best time of it right now. I plan to talk to the author of their website’s match reports later in the week so stay tuned for that. Their coach Chris Boyd suggested after defeat to Bordeaux that he may send an understrength squad to Dublin - I hope that’s not the case as this current group of Leinster talent needs to show their worth again the best each week.
But as the saying goes, you can only play what’s in front of you and if we can keep our standards where they are then we should be able to negotiate the rest of this head scratcher of a pool format pretty well. You certainly wouldn’t bet against Leo, Stuart & co getting that job done, that’s for sure. JLP