Blues are looking unbeatable now
The psychological bogey for Leinster of having to travel to France and win is now well and truly buried, as Leinster not only bullied one of the leading sides in France but they rubbed it in on Montpellier’s famed home patch.
Away from home against a star-studded team laden with international talent and still with something tangible still to play for, this win by Leinster was about as impressive as you will get.
When I saw the Montpellier team that their well-travelled Kiwi coach Vern Cotter had sent out in the hope that they could still qualify for the Champions Cup quarter-finals I worried a bit for a Leinster side that had already qualified for a quarter-final the week earlier.
To add to that Leinster was also missing the experience of Johnny Sexton and other players that would have usually started.
History was also against Leinster having lost three times in France last year.
Cotter would have relayed the news to his team at half-time that Glasgow were doing them a favour by taking care of Exeter, so all Montpellier had to was win Saturday’s match and get a four-try bonus point to give themselves a possible European lifeline.
By the break Montpellier were halfway to that target with a slender lead and two tries in the bag, despite Leinster always looking the more adventurous side.
Montpellier’s renowned grunt close to the line coupled with some naive lineout defence from Leinster had allowed the hosts two lineout-maul tries and Cotter would have been confident that if his team could just hold onto the ball more effectively then they were in pole position in their home stadium, a venue they hardly ever lose in.
In the second half Leinster were nothing short of brilliant, and they almost dominated Montpellier with ease.
Leinster’s set-piece game, where recalled Irish hooker Seán Cronin was inspirational, powerful and set the perfect platform, was very solid but it was Leinster’s ability to constantly move the point of attack and their vastly superior off-loading skills that was the biggest difference between the two sides.
We saw a Montpellier team content to play with brute force and a simplistic kicking game and at times, despite having plenty of flair on the outsides, they chose to kick, even in the last 10 minutes when chasing tries they still had nothing to trouble Leinster with apart from their maul.
Montpellier’s game-plan never worked against a team playing all the rugby, with Leinster constantly moving the heavy French pack all over the park in the first half thanks to some flat passing from the backs, then keeping it tight in the second half with dynamic close in ball carrying.
In the last year Leinster have become an amazingly adaptable side, who have a rare ability to change styles and even their bench to suit who they are playing. In my opinion no other side has that confidence this year apart from possibly The Scarlets.
That confidence starts with knowing that your pack can stand up to any opposition and teams must shudder when they look at Leinster’s front-row and options off the bench.
Tries from Leinster’s Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw and Seán Cronin saw the visitors take a much deserved French scalp 23-14, but it was more one sided than the score indicated, as a result Leinster go into the knockout side as the number 1 seed in Europe after amassing an unassailable 27 points from a clean sheet in what was earlier deemed the ‘Pool of Death’.
The only reason that Leinster coach Leo Cullen won’t be jumping for joy is that they have won nothing yet, apart from an all-important home draw (against Saracens) and I bet Cullen wishes that the European competition will continue interrupted.
Cullen faces losing a good chunk of his team to the Irish Six Nations camp and he, of course, cannot control what type of shape they return in, but if early signs are anything to go by and with England losing players by the week then Ireland look on track for a great Six Nations campaign.
That will hopefully allow Cullen to get his players back still up-beat and confident of silverware.
The fact that the Leinster conveyor belt is producing world class players every year should be more than enough to keep Leinster fighting in the Pro14 and they have a massive game against The Scarlets coming up that they need to win.
Of course other teams will be derailed more significantly than Leinster, sides from Scotland, Wales and Italy simply cannot fill the holes left by the Six Nations call-ups, Cullen on the other hand has a host of young players that he will get an extra opportunity to bring on in the coming weeks. It is the perfect team situation.
When a team plays so well it is more often a team effort, but certain players shone, the
front-row was immense inspired by by Man of the Match Cronin, openside flanker Josh van de Flier led the defensive line brilliantly and at one stage made a crucial tackle, rucked over the ball and won it back for his team all in the same motion.
Dan Leavy and James Ryan showed an uncanny ability to off-load in the tackle but in truth all the forwards played their part.
Robbie Henshaw was at his destructive best and while he has his critics Kiwi winger James Lowe is a breath of fresh air.
Yes he may shoot out of the defensive line at times but he has everything that is to be admired about the game, fearless and always willing to take a chance. It will be hard to leave him out when European action resumes and that will be a tough decision for Cullen - which two foreign players he needs most.
I said last week that these next two games would show us where Leinster are at the moment, and where they are is simple . . . the top of the European rugby elite.
In this sort of form Leinster are almost unbeatable. It’s an old cliché but in this form Leinster will only beat themselves, I cannot see any other team doing it.