Montpellier 14 Leinster 23
Leinster completed a clean sweep of Pool 3 with a 23-14 triumph at Montpellier to guarantee top seeding for the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals.
The three-time European champions made it six wins from six matches for the first time in 15 years and made sure the star-studded French side would not progress at the Altrad Stadium.
Ross Byrne’s early score was cancelled out by Bismarck Du Plessis and Yacouba Camara after powerful forward drives.
Leinster’s Sean Cronin celebrates his try with Jamison Gibson-Park. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland
But quick-fire tries from Robbie Henshaw and Sean Cronin at the start of the second half put Leinster out of sight.
They will now face the final team to sneak into the final qualification places, with so much still to be decided in the final round of pool matches.
With Leinster already qualified as Pool 3 winners, Leo Cullen was able to rest six key players, including Johnny Sexton, who did not make the trip to France.
Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park were tasked with directing Leinster’s attack against Montpellier’s star half-back pairing of Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden.
The ever reliable Isa Nacewa started in the centre while there was an acid test for new Ireland call-up Jordan Larmour, who went up against the 130kg Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo.
Montpellier had only lost once at home this season and held slim qualification hopes of their own.
They would have to beat the visitors with a bonus point and hope Exeter Chiefs slipped up against bottom side Glasgow Warriors.
The Top 14 heavyweights were attacking from deep in their own half in the opening minutes, and it proved to be their downfall.
Kiwi wing James Lowe burst clear after linking up with countryman Gibson-Park after a weak clearance from the hosts.
Lowe was brought to ground five metres short of the try line, but Gibson-Park was on hand to find Byrne in space for an easy touchdown in the corner.
The home support thought they had levelled the scores after 16 minutes when a flowing move saw Timoci Nagusa round Lowe and sprint down his right wing.
Pienaar was in close support, but the scoring pass was adjudged to have gone forward out of the hands of the Fijian.
They were punished two minutes later when Benjamin Fall failed to roll away at a ruck, allowing Byrne to extend Leinster’s lead to 8-0.
But the hosts flexed their muscles to score their first try after 24 minutes.
Cruden sent a penalty to the corner before driving an unstoppable maul over the line for Du Plessis to score.
Cruden landed the conversion from out wide to cut the gap to a single point.
Vern Cotter’s men continued to grow into the game but were almost further behind when Henshaw threw a long, cut-out pass to set Lowe free, but once again Luke Pearce blew for a forward pass.
Tadhg Furlong then opened the door for Montpellier to construct another driving maul when he played the ball on the floor at a ruck.
This time they sucked Leinster into thinking they would drive it over again, but Camara peeled off and fed Louis Picamoles, who offloaded back to his back-row colleague to score.
Cruden knocked the conversion over to make it 14-8 two minutes before half-time.
The hosts had the chance to sneak a third try before the half-time whistle, but some tireless defensive work from Furlong stopped Nadolo in his tracks just when he looked to be racing towards the corner.
Hooker Cronin sparked an early second-half attack for Cullen’s men and the pressure told when Du Plessis and Konstantin Mikautadze went offside at a ruck.
They went to the corner and built the phases before Montpellier were finally caught short on the wing, allowing Rob Kearney to send Henshaw over for the try.
Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw scores a try. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Byrne was off target with his conversion that would have given Leinster the lead after 46 minutes.
But they were ahead moments later through Byrne’s boot after some heavy defensive pressure from Josh van der Flier forced Nagusa into playing the ball on the floor at a ruck.
Only the boot of the covering Cruden denied Lowe a score after some fluid offloading play, but they did not waste their chance from the resulting lineout.
The Leinster pack gave Montpellier a taste of their own medicine by driving themselves over the line for Cronin to score.
It looked as if the hosts would use their driving power to cut the deficit once more, but a perfectly timed steal from Devin Toner at the lineout ensured Leinster would leave the south of France with four match points.
Fall had one last chance to claim a losing bonus point, but the attack fizzled out and Leinster claimed top seeding for the Champions Cup quarter-finals with 27 points from a possible 30.