14-man Leinster survived a nail-biting finish to begin their Champions Cup campaign with a 24-17 bonus point win over Montpellier at the RDS.
Man-of-the-match Robbie Henshaw (43 minutes) and European debutant Barry Daly (66) added to first half tries from Joey Carbery and Josh van der Flier to give Leinster a winning position.
Montpellier, who trailed 12-7 after playing with a first half wind advantage, hung in there thanks to a Nemani Nadolo double. Ruan Pienaar’s 70th-minute penalty had the gap back to seven points, but Leinster, despite losing Adam Byrne to the sin-bin, stood firm to go straight to the top of Pool 3.
Leinster fielded two Champions Cup newcomers in Daly and James Ryan, the latter replacing Scott Fardy whose wife went into labour earlier today. Injuries to Jonathan Sexton (dead leg) and Aaron Cruden (thigh) robbed the game of a mouth-watering out-half duel, with Leo Cullen’s men also kicking off their European season without the sidelined Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose.
After an initial surge out wide by Benjamin Fall, Ryan gobbled up a loose ball in the Leinster 22 and his second row partner Devin Toner stole an early lineout.
The wind-backed Pienaar and Jesse Mogg pinned Leinster back with some well-placed kicks, however the former pushed a 13th-minute penalty wide to let Tadhg Furlong off the hook for a scrum infringement.
It was Leinster who hit the front in the 17th minute, Sexton’s young replacement Ross Byrne pressurising Mogg with a clever kick and then, armed with a penalty advantage, he fired a pass out for Carbery to slice in between Fran Steyn and Nadolo and score the province’s 400th European Cup try.
Byrne was unable to convert from out wide, but excellent work in slowing down Montpellier ball gave Leinster further encouragement. Nadolo was then caught out by two pacy runs from Adam Byrne, number 10 Byrne also finding a hole in midfield before van der Flier burrowed over for a seven-pointer.
However, just as Leinster threatened to pull the trigger again, Bismarck du Plessis got in at the breakdown twice to lift the big-spending visitors, who have former Leinster lock Nathan Hines as their forwards coach.
With home captain Isa Nacewa unfortunately hobbling off, Steyn surged through midfield and Nadolo was held up just short. From the resulting scrum, a bouncing pass sat up fortuitously for the big Fijian to finish off and Pienaar converted for a 12-7 deficit.
Into the second half, the luck was on Leinster’s side when Ross Byrne’s cross-field kick came off the hands off Mogg and Joe Tomane and the onrushing Henshaw gobbled it up for an easy run-in, with Byrne converting for a 19-7 lead.
Eager replacement Cian Healy and Adam Byrne led Leinster’s charge for a bonus point but turnovers from Mikheil Nariashvili and Tomane rescued Vern Cotter’s charges. Henshaw did likewise for his side, recovering brilliantly to tackle the menacing Nadolo and then rip the ball out of Pienaar’s grasp.
Nonetheless, the size difference paid off for Nadolo on the hour mark when he batted away attempted tackles from Luke McGrath and Noel Reid to draw Montpellier back within five points.
It was Daly’s turn to show off his finishing skills five minutes later, Henshaw and Carbery combining to set up the winger for a muscular finish past Steyn and Timoci Nagusa in the left corner.
However, Leinster lapsed just when they needed to show composure. Poor discipline from Ross Molony allowed Pienaar to kick Montpellier into bonus point range, and winger Byrne’s deliberate knock-on for a yellow card left the hosts scrambling to hold on.
Nagusa blundered when he failed to free up a man outside him, though, and Montpellier’s levelling try never came. They kept hold of their losing bonus point, nonetheless, as Ross Byrne was short with a late long-range penalty.
Tickets for Leinster Rugby’s next home Champions Cup match against English champions Exeter Chiefs at Aviva Stadium go on sale this Tuesday at 10am from leinsterrugby.ie/tickets.