Leinster determined to set the record straight at Montpellier’s expense

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Lenster v Montpellier, RDS, Sunday, 1pm, (Live on BT Sport 2).

When Wayne Barnes’ whistle signals the kick-off come 1pm, although the Sunday brunchtime crowd has been restricted to 5,000, the relief ought to be audible. At last, a game. And not just any game either.

Still evidently embittered by the EPCR decision to award Montpellier a 28-0 bonus point walkover in their scheduled round two trek to the Top 14 club, this fixture also affords Leinster a gilt-edged opportunity to take out their frustrations in their first game for five weeks since beating Bath in their pool opener.

Whether or not at full throttle, Leinster are not quite at full strength, with Ryan Baird and Robbie Henshaw among those still sidelined. But significantly they are locked and fully loaded in both their starting and replacement front-rows.

It’s a measure of the importance Leo Cullen and co place in Ross Byrne that he has been entrusted again with the number 10 jersey but they also have the comfort of Rhys Ruddock (in line for his 50th tournament appearance) Johnny Sexton and James Lowe among a bench designed for maximum impact.

Many teams playing their first game in five weeks might lack some cohesion from the off, but Leinster are such a well-drilled side that they can hit the ground running better than most. Witness that seasonal 31-3 opener against the Bulls at the Aviva.

Besides, this Montpellier are every bit as ring rusty themselves if not more so, Covid issues having restricted them to just one actual outing in the past five weeks since their 42-6 defeat by Exeter in their opening pool match.

Due to more Covid cases and injuries, though no doubt also mindful of next week’s game at home to Exeter and the Top 14 meeting with La Rochelle in a fortnight, Philippe Saint-André has retained only one player from the side which beat Biarritz a fortnight ago.

It is a mix of some old hands, young tyros and players in need of game time and is missing all of their big guns, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Paolo Garbisi, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Cobus Reinach, Handre Pollard, Mohamed Haouas and Australian hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa et al.

But they will all feel they have a point to prove and have nothing to lose. They will be led by 35-year-old former French captain Guilhem Guirado, who said: “We are about to face one of the best teams in Europe. We know they are lacking rhythm because they haven’t played for a long time. It’s going to be a big test, but we want to figure it out.

Polar opposites

“It’s a short competition, with only four games and twists and turns. We won the first leg on the green carpet and it caused controversy, it bothered a lot of people. But we do not control these decisions. We are all frustrated to have played little lately but we have to put rugby back in the middle of it all.

Of Leinster he said: “It’s always nice to play against them because they play very polished rugby, with few errors in their systems. They are convinced of their strengths, press a button at kick-off and only stop at the final whistle. We will have to be united because we know what we are stepping into.”

Typical of a side coached by Saint-André, Montpellier like to play a grinding, stop-start brand of rugby, and seek to impose their big, bruising pack and their kicking game. Leinster are their polar opposites, recording an average ruck speed of 2.3 seconds in their round one win over Bath, the quickest of any club in the tournament so far.

Plenty of seemingly second- or third-string selections have revelled when given their opportunity in the sun and confounded expectations over the years in this competition. This Montpellier team have nothing to lose.

In essence it’s something of a rerun of Ireland-France in the Joe Schmidt- Saint-André era, and the more tempo Leinster generate, the more they reach the edges, the more Montpellier might struggle.

Leinster hold a 5-1- head-to-head record against Montpellier. They have also won their last 15 home games in the pool stages, whereas Montpellier have only won one of their last 19 away games in the Heineken Champions Cup (29-22v Glasgow Warriors in 2017/18), losing each of their last nine.

On foot of the team announcements, Paddy Power made Leinster 28-point favourites, a neatly ordained handicap given it might become a reasonable target for the home side in light of the vexed ‘outcome’ of the first encounter. Those odds have since hardened to 31 points, and ultimately it wouldn’t be especially surprising if Leinster covered that margin.

LEINSTER: H Keenan; J Larmour, G Ringrose, C Frawley, J O’Brien; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, R Kelleher, T Furlong, R Molony, J Ryan (capt), C Doris, J van der Flier, J Conan. Replacements: D Sheehan, C Healy, M Ala’alatoa, R Ruddock, M Deegan, L McGrath, J Sexton, J Lowe.

MONTPELLIER: A Bevia; P Lucas, T Darmon, K Martin, J Vici, L Foursans, G Aprasidze; M Nariashvili, G Guirado (capt), H Thomas, T Duguid, M Capelli, M Dakuwaqa, F Verhaeghe, M Tauleigne. Replacements: V Giudicelli, R Rodgers, T Lamositele, A Becognee, A Eymeri, P Vallée, N J van Rensburg, Z Mercer.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).

Head-to-head: Pl 7, Leinster 5 wins, 1 draw, Montpellier 1 win.

Betting (Paddy Power): 1/200 Leinster, 100/1 Draw, 50/1 Montpellier. Handicap odds (Montpelleir + 31pts) 10/11 Leinster, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Montpellier.

Forecast: Leinster to win.

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