Leinster will go into Saturday’s European Champions Cup final against Racing 92 at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao as overwhelming favourites to win their fourth title. GRAEME PEACOCK reports.
The pinnacle of the European rugby scene is almost upon us. In what has been an absolutely superb season, we are down to two teams: Leinster and Racing 92.
This is a tournament where you truly have to earn your right of passage to the final, taking on the great sides of European rugby in the likes of Saracens, Munster and Toulon, to name a few.
The Champions Cup is seen as the top rugby competition in the world from a club/franchise point of view, having overtaken the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby. There is no doubt the powers that be have struck a chord with rugby fans in Europe and have the perfect recipe for a successful tournament.
This season’s final will be played at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao, Spain. It is the La Liga side Athletic Bilbao’s stadium and seats just over 53,000 spectators. The choice of venue is another sign of the forward thinking of the competition’s decision-makers – not only are they taking the game to new borders in the Basque region of Spain but also a world-class arena that provides the perfect climate for this time of the year.
In what promises to be an epic final, Leinster are the out-and-out favourites and rightfully so, as they have swept all before them and have a squad that would compete with any side in world rugby. Leo Cullen’s team has a 100% win record in this season’s Champions Cup and will also host a Pro14 semi-final.
The Leinster tight-five are all Irish internationals and confidence is sky-high among this group after success in both the international and provincial arenas. In Tadhg Furlong, they have the best tighthead prop in world rugby, who is fantastic at scrum time and is also prominent in the loose for a front ranker.
The rest of the pack is up there with the best, however, one stands taller than the rest – Scott Fardy. The Australian is a gutsy performer and has a steely edge to his game that has made his one of the best buys from the southern hemisphere. At 1.98m and 112kg he has a massive presence in the loose as well as being a useful option at lineout time. Wallabies coach Michael Cheika would love a player like him in the national set-up.
The Leinster backline is full of dangerous players who can hurt any opposition. Johnny Sexton is the general and he is surrounded by genuine quality. Former British & Irish Lions fullback Rob Kearney is one of the best in the game under the high ball and no slouch on attack either. The centre combination has great balance, with the bullocking Robbie Henshaw complimented by the elusive Garry Ringrose. Leinster is a well-rounded team and will be extremely tough to beat.
Racing 92, unfortunately, have been dealt a hammer blow with the injury to their inspirational leader No 9 Maxime Machenaud. The scrumhalf ruptured his knee ligaments in a Top 14 match against Bordeaux recently.
Machenaud, who is one of the most sought-after players in Europe, controls the game beautifully for Racing as well as being the French side’s main place-kicker. It remains to be seen if the kicking responsibility goes to Pat Lambie or All Blacks legend Dan Carter in light of the No 9’s injury. Carter only came off the bench against Munster in the semi-finals in the sunset of his French adventure.
This Racing 92 side cannot be written off, however, and they have a potent backline. There are quality players scattered between No 9 and 15, including French internationals Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa and Marc Andreu.
Former Munster man Donnacha Ryan will be looking to put one over his fiercest rivals from his time in Ireland. Ryan – who has played in the second row and the loose trio – has been immense this season, both at the set piece and ruck time.
The Parisians, who finished second on the French Top 14 log, have a steely grit in the pack, including loosehead prop Ben Arous and the gifted No 8 Yannick Nyanga. There is also a South African feel to Racing 92, with Bernard Le Roux and Antonie Claassen, son of former Springbok captain Wynand, potentially in the match-day 23.
The key for Racing will be to see how they settle without Machenaud, but if they start like they did against Munster in the semi-finals, Leinster could find it a tough afternoon in Spain.
Kick-off is at 5:40pm (SuperSport 6).
Leinster 38 Scarlets 16
A dominant display by Leinster at the Aviva Stadium showed why they are firm favourites to be champions this season. In perfect conditions for running rugby Leinster didn’t disappoint, with five tries to one victory over the Welsh region. A massive performance by the pack allowed the Leinster backs to reign supreme. An 18-point haul by Johnny Sexton, including a try, wasn’t enough to be awarded Man of the Match. That went to the Australian Scott Fardy, who was a man mountain in the loose. The Leinster try-scorers were Fergus McFadden, Cian Healy, James Ryan and Fardy. The Scarlets’ consolation try was scored by Tadgh Beirne with a minute left on the clock. It was a complete display by Leinster, sending them through to Bilbao.
Racing 27 Munster 22
Racing settled this semi-final in the first half as they completely blew away a Munster outfit that didn’t know what hit them. Teddy Thomas crossed the whitewash as early as the fourth minute and there was no let up from the Parisian outfit in the first 40. Further tries by Thomas and Machenaud were both converted by the Racing No 9, who added a penalty to put Racing ahead 24-3 at half-time. A courageous second-half performance by Munster wasn’t enough after they left themselves too much to do after the break. Two converted Munster tries in the last five minutes made it look like a closer contest than it really was.
Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
The British & Irish Lions No 10 is key to the Leinster set-up and will be critical in creating space for his dangerous back three where opportunities will be few and far between. The 32-year-old’s game management has been key to the Leinster success this season and his kicking both from hand and from the tee needs to be on song if Leinster are to be victorious.
Pat Lambie (Racing 92)
The Springbok will play a pivotal role in the final in Bilbao, especially in light of the injury to Machenaud. The former Sharks stalwart has been in good form for the French outfit, playing at both flyhalf and fullback this season. Lambie has put any concussion fears behind him, but it remains to be seen if he will take up the kicking duties for the final. Lambie will be hoping to get Racing’s dangerous back three into space.
Leinster – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Isa Nacewa (c), 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 James Tracy, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Rhys Ruddock, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Rory O’Loughlin.
Racing 92 – 15 Louis Dupichot, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Marc Andreu, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Teddy Iribaren, 8 Yannick Nyanga (c), 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Cedate Gomes Sa, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Subs: 16 Ole Avei, 17 Vasil Kakovin, 18 Census Johnston, 19 Boris Palu, 20 Baptiste Chouzenoux, 21 Antoine Gibert, 22 Dan Carter, 23 Joe Rokocoko.
Photo: Brendan Moran/Getty Images