Wednesday 23 January 2019

Leinster's 'total rugby' a warning to rest

Isa Nacewa scores Leinster's first try against Montpellier during the Champions Cup match at the RDS on Firday Photo: Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa scores Leinster's first try against Montpellier during the Champions Cup match at the RDS on Firday Photo: Sportsfile

Leinster were the first team to book their place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals after they demolished Montpellier 57-3 at the RDS on Friday.

Montpellier still had a chance to qualify for the knockout stages prior to the game, but down to 14 men and completely outclassed, Montpellier - like some of the other big-name French sides - limped out of the competition.

A few years ago it was reputed that incoming coach Joe Schmidt walked into his first Leinster team session and said that to compete with the physicality of teams from France and England, he would develop Leinster into the best passing side in Europe.

His payback was two European Cups in three years. On Friday night in fortress RDS, Leinster were simply awesome, and the speed of their passing game was reminiscent of those halcyon days with Schmidt.

Leinster rugby is back with a serious bang, and based on this display they are now a serious threat to any team in Europe, especially at home.

Despite Montpellier running up the white flag far too early in the match, which was over by the interval, scoring nearly 60 points is no mean feat against a side currently third in the French Championship.

Montpellier started the game like a team intent on still making a statement in this pool, with their huge pack crashing and bashing around Leinster's fringe defence.

But some great defence by the home side did not let the French get an early foothold in the game. Leinster then realised that if they moved the ball wide and cleared rucks quickly then Montpellier were seriously vulnerable. Out-half Johnny Sexton was giving a masterclass in moving his team around the field at speed and into space. Sexton's passing skills, often missing players one moment then feeding players inside and outside him the next, was the main reason Leinster had oodles of space.

Playing so flat on the gain line eventually took its toll again after Sexton was left flattened by a late and high tackle from Montpellier's South African Frans Steyn, and despite the fact that Sexton was dipping a bit when he was tackled the decision was correct and Steyn was rightly sent from the field.

Under the new laws regarding dangerous tackling, it had to be a red card. If Montpellier thought they were struggling with a full team, it got a whole lot worse a man down.

Up front, Leinster's loose forwards were everywhere and in rampant form. The Montpellier back row, on the other hand, were almost non-existent. Every time they showed up for a ruck the ball was gone.

Awful place

It showed that what I had written on Friday night was true. French rugby is in an awful place. There was little threat from the visitors, apart from the odd rolling maul and some crash and bash options in the centre.

Other than that there was no organisation in defence and no finesse in attack.

Yet these players and their coach have the cheek to cash their cheques as if nothing has happened. It's one thing losing a match when you try your heart out and are just outclassed. But Racing 92 last week and now Montpellier this week just gave up. If I was a Montpellier supporter or their owner, I would be embarrassed and seek answers from Jake White.

But the old sporting cliché still applies. You can only play what is in front of you and at last Leinster played for the full 80 minutes and continued to set goals as the match went on.

Leo Cullen must be delighted. You could see that after the bonus point try Leinster said to themselves " let's put 50 points on this side" and they went for it. It showed a ruthless, almost All Black mentality to put a vastly inferior side to the sword.

In a fantastic team display it's hard to single out individual players but Leinster's blindside flanker Jack Conan was a revelation. Not only did he score a hat-trick of tries himself, he was so often the fulcrum of Leinster's attack with ball in hand.

He is yet another Leinster player that Joe Schmidt will be looking at in an area where Irish rugby is already stacked with talent.

Leinster scrum-half Luke McGrath cleared ball so quickly that the Montpellier players could not lay a hand on him or it, as well as scoring a brilliant individual try himself, leaving the Montpellier loose forwards tackling thin air on route to scoring under the posts.

Sexton was immense, so was Garry Ringrose and the two Leinster wingers Adam Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin.

But the player that summed up Leinster's hunger was their Captain Fantastic, Isa Nacewa. Nacewa's skill-set was super and the crowd gasped when he kicked a ball through, regained it and then delivered a sweet pass inside to the rampaging Conan to score.

It's hard to believe that Nacewa left the game for two years to return to New Zealand and coach. He has been the most influential overseas signing ever in Europe, and is revered by every Leinster player and supporter since he arrived.

He is a humble, passionate man who always gives his best for Leinster, win or lose. Some of the Montpellier players could learn from his attitude.

If Leinster can play like this and get a bit of luck in the knockout draw then there is every chance that Nacewa and his team can be in Edinburgh on finals day. It was an awesome Leinster performance, one of their best in Europe.

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