Before we turn our attention to Ireland’s Autumn adventures, I chose to spend some of the Halloween weekend having a look at one of Leinster’s European opponents to see how they are shaping up.
You might assume I chose to focus only on Montpellier because Bath, who we face in our opening match at the Aviva Stadium on December 11, aren’t exactly having the best time of it this season so far, and this is true to an extent, though I will also be looking at them more closely when I have Matt “@BathBytes” Price back on the podcast ahead of their visit so I can turn the spotlight firmly on the reigning Challenge Cup champions from the Top 14 for now.
What I have tried to do here is scribble a set of “mini-writeups” of MHR’s last four matches from a Leinster perspective, given our December trip to the GGL Stadium would seem to be our biggest challenge in the pool stages, especially given it comes after a six-day turnaround.
So for what it’s worth, here’s what my “scouting mission” uncovered...
October 9, 2021
LOADS to unpack in this match but I’ll do my best to be brief.
First, this was a perfect demonstration for why the French (and now Super Rugby) bonus point system is far superior to the one we have gotten used to on these shores. In the URC, Bordeaux’s 4th try on 42m would have guaranteed them a bonus point regardless of the result, although given they were 27-6 up at the time you’d have thought it was a formality.
Yet when Montpellier came storming back with two converted tries from Masivesi Dakuwaqa and Anthony Bouthier, it not only got them within 7 points of their hosts but also made them need another try to secure the BP as in France you have to score three more than your opponents.
But as for MHR themselves, well there was good and bad news for Leinster in their play throughout this one. First, the bad - they seemed to have an impressive lineout operation. They pinched one or two against the throw and when it was theirs, they not only went with their calls confidently but they also showed some good innovation so this is definitely an area Leinster need to be wary of.
Yet despite that set piece prowess they did still fall 4-0 down on try count and this was down to an inability to halt Jalibert & co when they were on the front foot and all four scores originated outside the 22. However like I said they did stage a fightback and for both tries used a lot of power up the middle so Leinster’s defence will have to be at its best for the full 80 minutes.
There was a very curious end to this match. Right after they brought the score back to 27-20, Bordeaux prop Jefferson Poirot was sent to the naughty step so it looked like the visitors should at least draw level but they were thwarted on several occasions.
Yet right after Poirot returned, sub MHR scrum half Louis Foursans-Bourdette chipped ahead in the 22 only to be pulled back by Jean-Baptiste Dubié; the Bordeaux sub was also sent to the bin allowing one more chance to draw level, or so it seemed given there was still 30 seconds left on the clock and an extra man.
Instead, however, they chose to let Paolo take the three points, reducing the margin to 4 and putting a losing bonus point on the table for Montpellier (another Top 14 difference, you have to be within 5 or less). You’d have thought they’d at least have a sniff for a try from the restart to win the match but instead with the clock now in the red they held what they had and killed the match.
October 16, 2021
One of those matches where you can say there was a “thrilling finish” despite the rest of the match being mostly a snoozefest. Both teams went into this match as ones well known to be still in the trophy hunt at the end of the season yet right now were struggling to find that kind of form, and they continued that billing throughout the match.
For the second week in a row Montpellier were hit in the opening exchanges when a shimmy from Camille Lopez and an offload to Damien Penaud set up a score with just 6 minutes gone on the clock. But it wasn’t long until the home side were back down the other end and after a TMO ruled out a try following a fortunate bounce off the post from a Garbisi chip through, they went back for a penalty and from here there was a lineout and maul before it was put through the backs where Julien Tisseron was in space to cross.
At that stage, just 12 minutes in, it looked like it was going to be a high scoring contest but then the gremlins that had been holding these two sides back started to take over as neither was to cross the line again for the rest of the match, finding unique ways for their moves to fall apart as they went along, as well as being seemingly disinterested in exploiting a dead ball area at the GGL Stadium that you could land a plane on.
Sometimes the moves offered penalty opportunities however so the scoreboard was kept moving and after the Tisseron try the home side managed to stay ahead on the scoreboard all the way to the 74th minute, although they surely would have expected to make more hay from a first half sin-binning of Penaud.
Their lead never went beyond seven yet as the match ticked into the final half an hour I started to wonder why coach Phillipe Saint André was persisting with Paolo Garbisi at fly-half. It wasn’t that the Italian youngster was a disaster by any means, it’s just that when you have a World Cup winning 10 like Handré Pollard waiting in the wings and your attack isn’t really firing you surely want to get him out there asap, especially in front of your home crowd.
It was 20-16 when he did take the field, albeit with just ten minutes to go, but two quick penalties from Lopez nudged the visitors in front by 2, and when an attacking lineout on 78m resulted in a crooked dart (to be fair the Montpellier lineout had again been their best feature up to this point), it looked like their chance to pinch the lead back was gone.
But it has to be remembered that Jono Gibbes’ ASM side were just as low on confidence and as they went through the phases in the 80th minute to kill the clock, they got pinged for sealing off setting the stage for Pollard to be the hero from what was a very kickable position for him.
Perhaps if he had been on the pitch for longer he’d have gotten the chance to have a less crucial kick to find his sights, but instead although his kick was perfect direction wise, it lacked the legs to clear the crossbar and fell short meaning for the second week in a row Montpellier had to be content with a losing bonus point.
From Leinster’s point of view, this was very similar to the previous week. Montpellier showed great variation in the lineout, and there were impressive performances from the likes of Camara, Mercer and Bouthier, but when you’re conceding tries in the opening minutes and struggling to get your attack going yourself for the entire match, the prospect of a four-time European champion coming to town can’t be great for them.
However, as I was taking in this set of four matches, I couldn’t help but reserve my judgement until I saw the team operating with the half-back pairing of Cobus Reinach and Handré Pollard, which you’d have to assume was their combo of choice for Europe.
October 23, 2021
OK so there I was, as I was doing that last mini-writeup there, assuming that Montpellier’s plan was to go with an all Springbok Reinach/Pollard pairing. Turns out they had other ideas, and at La Defense Arena they showed why they’re doing the planning and I’m just doing the harping.
Instead they went with Reinach at 9, Garbisi at 10 and Pollard at 12, and boy, did it work well. After falling behind on the scoreboard the previous weeks, they jumped out to an early 10-0 lead here despite Racing 92 having the league’s best defensive record in the opening quarter.
The Parisian outfit soon settled into their trademark attacking style, even with Finn Russell on the bench, and came storming back with two quick tries of their own to regain the lead 14-10. However that high tempo approach might be attractive to watch when it works but also there can be a risky pass too many and when one was intercepted, it forced Luke Jones to slow the ball down earning himself 10 minutes in the bin.
During that spell MHR kicked 3 penalties, with Garbisi handling the short range and Pollard the long, restoring their lead until the final play of the first half when Racing were attacking at the 22 before Reinach ripped the ball free from Mangene’s grasp and proceeded to sprint the all the way down the other end to go under the posts for an easy 7 point to make it a whopping 14-26 at halftime.
— BallCarrier (@BallCarrier_) October 24, 2021
But Racing couldn’t capitalise on the extra man for the ten minutes and on 75m a good steal from Bouthier (very impressive at 15) kept the 8-point lead intact with Garbisi given the opportunity in the dying minutes to tack on an extra three pointer for good measure.
After two matches in a row where they looked extremely average, all of a sudden Montpellier were looking like a force to be reckoned with once more and their celebrations at the final whistle were much deserved.
October 30, 2021
There’s no doubt Montpellier have gotten better throughout this four match block that I’m covering. Here, they absolutely positively dominated Lyon in pretty much every aspect of play, despite being behind them on the Top 14 table at kickoff.
It certainly didn’t look like south of France weather at the GGL Stadium as the rain was teeming down throughout yet a close to full strength MHR side continued to impress at lineout time, with scrums and breakdowns also going their way. But we also got a really good demonstration of how well the Reinach/Garbisi/Pollard axis works for them.
But as a blogger who harps on Leinster week in week out it’s tough not to apply the same standards as I’m used to and I actually think coach PSA should be disappointed with this result. Yes, I know that sounds odd after a 22-point winning margin yet I cannot stress enough just how much they were in charge.
At half-time the score was 23-3, and it was during that spell that I felt they failed to press home their advantage. As well as all the set pieces they also had Lyon shipping penalties like they were going out of fashion, with two yellow cards within minutes of each other giving the home side a decent spell of 15v13.
Yet off they trotted to the sheds at halftime with just 2 tries on the board, one a penalty try and the other the latest spot of opportunism from Reinach as he capitalised on a terrible fumble by Lima Sopoaga over his own try line. Without all that help from the visitors, I wonder if MHR would have much of a lead at all.
Now of course you have to offer some kind of leeway for the conditions, but again I’m trying to imagine this as if Leinster were playing at home against a team from the top half of the league. Would I use the rain as an excuse if we didn’t turn this level of superiority into a bonus point?
Again the French BP system was a factor here as although the third try did come eventually in the midst of a really scrappy second half, a late five pointer from Doussain may not have been consolation for Lyon but it did take the bonus off the table for Montpellier, and although they pressed for a fourth try towards the end and seemed to have a penalty after a bad challenge from Lampey (also worth a card so an extra man too) to keep the attack going beyond 80 minutes, their sub scrum half Aprasidze (who looked lively in open play) over-reacted and had the penalty reversed which ended the match.
So overall a decent result for them which moves them into 5th on the Top 14 table, but I can’t help but wonder if they’ll rue missing out on that extra point come season’s end as the middle portion of this league tends to stay close throughout the campaign.
I feel like I really know this team after studying four of their matches in four days. They have some serious operators throughout their starting lineup.
Willemse is quite the enforcer and could be used to knock Leinster off their game plan in the early stages. In Camara, Mercer and the just-returned slub captain Ouedraogo, they have a very strong back row which can also cause havoc on an opposition’s lineout so we’ll definitely need to shore things up there.
But like I said they put a lot of stock in that 9,10,12 combo for numerous reasons. The one I think will affect Leinster the most is the fact that while Garbisi takes all the placekicks from “traditional” locations, Pollard can thump one over from the centre spot with distance to spare so we’ll have to watch the discipline from the kickoff.
Defensively they look pretty sound as well. Often they seemed vulnerable in transition or prolonged bits of broken play but once set they can be a tough nut to crack so we’ll have to be patient and be sure to take our chances should they come.
And when it comes to their morale, well like I said their form improved throughout these four matches and with 12th place Stade away followed by two home matches to come before their Champions Cup opening trip to Sandy Park, they could well be in an even better place by the time we head down there, although they will also have a 6-day turnaround to contend with.
Right that’s enough from me on this, I reckon. I really enjoyed these mini-writeups but it’s time now to swap the blue goggles for the green and get stuck into this November series. This week on the podcast I’ll have @overthehillprop on to discuss Ireland’s chances and then we’re into the more usual Harpin formation of previews, comments and writeups throughout the month. Do join me won’t you. JLP