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After the bitter disappointment of losing twice at home, and suffering their worst European season of all-time, Leinster fortunes have dramatically moved on 12 months later.
The equation going into their Round 5 clash with second placed Montpellier is simple – win and a quarter-final place is secure, lose and start worrying about having to perform in Castres in Round 6. It means the RDS meeting is a ‘must-win’ game for both sides.
As far as Jake White’s Montpellier team is concerned, losing is not an option if they want to build on last season’s Challenge Cup triumph and reach the last eight for the first time since 2013. They may have won the home leg 22-16, but the balance between the two teams shifted in the closing moments at the Altrad Stadium when Isa Nacewa scored a last minute try and conversion to earn Leinster a priceless bonus point.
The Irish province currently sit five points clear at the top of their French rivals in Pool 4 with Castres a further two points back in third. A win of any description would therefore be good enough to cinch the pool.
A massive 10 try, 70-6 home win over Zebre in the PRO12 got Leinster in the mood for something special in front of the RDS faithful this weekend, but international centre Robbie Henshaw is bracing himself for a much tougher challenge this time out.
“We know we're going to have our work cut out and it's going to be a tough game. We'll need to be 100% switched on,” said Henshaw.
“Montpellier are a massive side and have a lot of skill across the board. Their pack is probably the biggest we've played this year so we need to be strong in defence, razor sharp in attack and keep the ball moving around the pitch.
“It's going to be a physical game but we need to control it. Obviously, that starts with our physicality in defence and putting in some big shots.”
Ireland and British & Irish Lions outside half Johnny Sexton returned against Zebre last week to give his side a boost, but a hamstring injury suffered by international hooker Sean Cronin means he has been ruled out of the final two pool matches.
Montpellier’s indiscipline cost them dearly in Round 4 when they were beaten 29-23 in Castres. For the second game in a row head coach White saw a player sent off, and a 23-16 lead frittered away.
They managed to overcome Bordeaux-Begles in the TOP 4 last weekend, 31-26, and are very much in the mix at the top of the French championship, currently sitting in third place behind Clermont and La Rochelle. The giant wing Nemani Madolo, who scored two tries in the first-leg, will be an obvious danger man for Leinster to watch, while former Munster and Ireland scrum half Tomas O’Leary is included among the replacements and should be able to offer a lot of insight into what it takes to win in Dublin.
- This will be the fourth meeting between the clubs with honours even so far – one win each and a draw.
- Leinster have won 20 of their last 22 home games against TOP 14 opposition in the competition. RC Toulon (2015) and ASM Clermont Auvergne (2012) are the only French sides to have tasted success in Dublin in that time.
- Montpellier have lost their last seven away games in the tournament.
- If Pool 4 leaders, Leinster, manage to win, they will be guaranteed a place in the quarter-finals.
- Isa Nacewa has scored the joint most points in the Champions Cup this season (67, level with Owen Farrell of Saracens) and has scored more tries than any other player (5).
- Leinster's Josh van der Flier and Montpellier's Paul Willemse have each won six turnovers this season, and Willemse has recorded his six in just 163 minutes of action.
- The three-time champions are the only side with a 100% scrum success rate (26/26).
- Leinster have conceded a competition low 28 penalties to date this season.
- Of the 149 players to make 20+ carries this season, Nemani Nadolo has the best average gain rate – 10.2 metres per carry.
- Leinster are one of two teams (Clermont are the other) with more than one player to play every minute of the four rounds this season: Jamie Heaslip and Robbie Henshaw.
- Montpellier have the lowest place kicking success rate this season (61%).
- The last time Leinster defeated Montpellier at the RDS (Round 6, 2012), they went on to win the tournament.
- Johnny Sexton needs five points to reach 500 for the tournament.
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Leinster Rugby became the first qualifiers for the Champions Cup quarter-finals as they put their nearest rivals in Pool 4 to the sword.
A year on from their worst European campaign the three-time champions turned on the style as they ran in eight tries, three of them from Heineken Man of the Match Jack Conan, to put themselves within touching distance of a coveted home draw in the knock-out stages.
They go to Castres in Round 6 with the pool title in the bag, the 12th in their history, with 21 points already to their credit. If they play as fluently as this then anything is possible.
Isa Nacewa got Leinster off the mark with a try in the right corner and by the end of the game they had run 14-man Montpellier ragged. It was the TOP 14 side’s heaviest defeat in the Champions Cup and they also picked up records for the most tries and conversion conceded.
Their cause wasn’t helped by the 15th minute dismissal of Frans Steyn for a head high shot on opposite number Johnny Sexton. It was the third Champions Cup game in a row in which Montpellier have had a player sent-off this season.
Sexton left the field for an HIA, but returned to carry on directing operations and steer his side into the last eight. Having taken the lead with the Nacewa try, converted by Sexton, Leinster bagged two more scores before the break to put themselves on the brink of the bonus-point.
Steyn kicked a penalty mid-way through the first-half, but that was as good as it got for the visitors. Back row man Conan crossed for his first Champions Cup try and then acted as the link to give Adam Byrne a third to make it 24-3 at half-time.
The high-tempo Leinster brought into the game certainly warmed things up on a freezing night in Dublin and their all action approach simply made things hotter and hotter for Montpellier after the break. It may have taken 14 minutes before the bonus point try arrived, courtesy of Conan, but that was merely the start of a try-fest.
Four more tries flowed before the game came to an end. Conan got his hat-trick, Luke McGrath raced 30 metres to the posts, Cian Healy burrowed over from two metres and Garry Ringrose weaved his way over at the posts for the eighth and final score.
Sexton went through 500 points in the tournament with his three conversions and his replacement, Ross Byrne, chipped in four.
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