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Montpellier Herault RC vs Leinster Rugby
Stade de la Mosson, Montpellier,
Saturday, 12th November, 2011, 14:30 (13:30 Irish Time)

Television: Live Sky Sports 1, Highlights TG4 21:15

So let the case for the defence begin!

For the second time in three years, Leinster begin their campaign as defending Heineken Cup champions. They are looking to become the first team to retain the trophy since Leicester over a decade ago. They are also looking to become the first team ever to win it three times in four years. Of course all Leinster's main rivals are determined to stop that happening.

Toulouse and Clermont have been revitalised by several big name signings over the summer. Last year's beaten finalists Northampton have also bulked up their squad and English champions Saracens will be looking to make an impact in Europe this season. And of course the likes of Leicester and Munster will be looking to get back into the mix as well.

Last week Leinster beat Munster at the Aviva Stadium in the game that never really sparked, partially due to an overly pedantic French referee. You got the sense that both teams weren't completely at full tilt though and that they had one eye on this week's games. In some ways it was perfect preparation for Leinster in that they got the win they wanted, but didn't win so well that they may be complacent going into this week. Leinster did what they needed to do, but there was plenty for the coaches to work on in both the forwards and the backs. You could see from the reaction of the Leinster players at the end that no one was celebrating and they knew the performance needs serious improvement for this week.

After the group of death last season, Leinster have an easier pool this time around in Bath, Glasgow and Montpellier. However, it could still be tricky. Bath are a tough time to beat at home and as we've already seen this season, you underestimate Glasgow at your peril. First up though is a trip to Montpellier. Trips to France are never easy and Joe Schmidt will be cursing his luck to have this match as the opening fixture. Leinster have only won two of their last six away games in France and those two wins came against a poor Brive team and an under-strength Racing 92 team last January.

Montpellier will definitely be up for this match, as it's their first ever game in the Heineken Cup after only competing in the Shield up to now. They are actually one of the youngest clubs in the tournament as they were only founded in 1986 following the merger of Stade Montpellierain and MUC Rugby. The club grew quickly though and they were promoted as Pro 2 champions in 2003. However, last season was the first time they made a real impact in the Top 14.

With new coach Fabien Galthie in charge he took on a squad assembled for a fraction of the budget of the top teams. French internationals Fulgence Ouedraogo and Francois Trinh-Duc were their only big names but Galthie took them all the way to the Top 14 final where they ran Toulouse close before losing narrowly. And they did so playing some of the best rugby seen in France last season, a refreshing change from the boring kicking fests we saw from the bigger teams.

The second season was always going to be tougher for Montpellier, even allowing for the fact that they recruited well during the summer. They struggled badly during the World Cup and lie in second last place in the table with only two wins and a draw from their first nine games. On first inspection it seems a mystery why they were so badly affected during the World Cup as only Ouedraogo and Trinh-Duc were away with France. However when you look at where their squad hails from, it makes more sense as they have a high number of Georgians and Argentineans.

But they're all back for this Saturday and they have an impressive squad, particularly in the forwards. Apart from their captain Ouedraogo, who's a superbly athletic flanker in the Serge Betsen mode, the big name in the pack is Georgian backrow Mamuka Gorgodze. At nearly six-four and weighing 19 stone, he's earned his nickname of 'Gorgodzilla' such has been the impact of his rampaging style of play. With those two and the experienced Rémy Martin, who was recruited from Bayonne, it's potentially a top-class backrow although they could also go with Fijian Sakiusa Matadigo or New Zealander Alex Tulou in this area.

They've got an experienced second row with ex-Clermont lock Thibault Privat partnering South African Drickus Hancke. The front row features Juan Figallo, a punishing scrummager, who was the starting tighthead for Argentina during the World Cup. Agustin Creevy, who's Mario Ledesma's heir apparent at hooker for Argentina, is another superb player and in Georgian props Giorgi Jgenti and Goderdzi Shvelidze they have two canny operators who are as hard as nails. Make no mistake, they'll be looking to do a number on the Leinster scrum and scrum coach Greg Feek will have his work cut out trying to keep them at bay.

In the backline Trinh-Duc is the star man at out-half and though he hasn't always convinced at international level, his performances for Montpellier last season were inspirational. They've got three more Argentinean internationals in the backline in Santiago Fernandez, Martin Bustos Moyano and Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino who was recruited from the Leicester Tigers. Paul Bosch is a hard-running South African centre who lives up to his name and Irish rugby fans will recognise the name of Fijian winger Timoci Nagusa. The former Ulster player could never get used to the weather up at Ravenhill (in fairness it would test the constitution of a polar bear) but he's thrived since arriving in the warmer climbs of Montpellier. So overall, there's plenty in the Montpellier squad to be wary of but their preparations hit a snag last weekend when their game in Lyon was cancelled because of an outbreak of mumps. It denied them a chance to get the likes of Trinh-Duc and Ouedraogo back into the fold, but sometimes these things can work the other way and they'll be the fresher team coming into the match.

For Leinster the big news this week was the announcement that Brian O'Driscoll has to have an operation on his neck and shoulder that will keep him out for most of the rest of the season. In truth, the news was grimly inevitable as it was clear during the World Cup that the great man wasn't fully fit. After 12 years of stellar service, O'Driscoll owes Leinster nothing, however you hope for his own sake that he can come back next year to have a fitting end to a glorious career. Shane Horgan is also to have a further operation on his knee so Leinster will have to do without two of their most senior players for the pool stages of the Heineken Cup at the very least.

It's a big blow but it also presents an opportunity for several younger players who'll want to show they can fill the spots left open. Outside centre will be the most interesting shout. Fergus McFadden played there last week, but the suspicion remains that he's better suited to inside centre these days or even the wing, where he excelled last season. Eoin O'Malley seems a more natural outside centre and it's worth remembering how well he played in Clermont last season when filling in for O'Driscoll. Of course, moving Luke Fitzgerald in from the wing is another option. Fitzgerald didn't like playing inside centre too much during the World Cup, but outside centre could suit him better, where his quick feet and excellent defence could be very useful. Other young players like Dave Kearney, Fionn Carr and Andrew Conway will have an eye on Horgan's vacant wing spot, especially if Isa Nacewa is moved from there.

It will be interesting to see which way Schmidt wants to go and several players will probably be tried there this season. Overall though, there shouldn't be too many changes from the team that began against Munster. Isaac Boss played well enough last Friday to hold onto his number 9 jersey for Friday, especially as Schmidt started him in both the away games in France last season. In the second row Devin Toner may come under pressure from Stephen Sykes, but again probably did enough to hold onto his starting spot.

Forwards coach Jonno Gibbes will have been working his pack hard this week, trying to iron out the cracks in the scrum and the maul defence exposed by Munster. He'll know that Montpellier would have watched that video and will come after the Leinster pack to try to dominate them physically. In the backs, Joe Schmidt will want to see a lot more creativity but hopefully the run-out last week will have helped. We barely saw any of the Leinster off-loading game that worked so successfully last season and he'll want to get his flair players back expressing themselves.

On the positive side Jonny Sexton continued his impressive form with the boot since returning from the World Cup and it was Leinster's best performance at the breakdown this season. It's going to be another tough away day in France against a fired-up Montpellier side but hopefully Leinster will use all their European experience to dig out a win to get their campaign off to the perfect start.

Teams to be announced at lunchtime on Friday

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-11-10

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