Leinster’s mental strength edges arm wrestle
IN this, the 23rd staging of the Heineken/Champions Cup final, the organisers hit on one of those magnificent venues: located bang in the city centre, and a lovely city at that. They wouldn’t know a rugby ball from a pineapple in this part of the world, but if any of the locals tuned in to proceedings in the San Mamés Stadium they can’t have been overly impressed.
This was billed as Leinster’s to lose. Before a ball had been kicked in the semi-final they were favourites to win the trophy; after their demolition of Scarlets the odds came in a bit more; and once Racing — outstanding in their win over Munster in the other half of the draw — lost captain and goal-kicker Maxime Machenaud in the run-up to this final then Leinster were backable only if you had large sacks of loot to make your modest return.
By the time we had got to the break a landslide was off the agenda. And when we got to the endgame Leinster were leading by three points in a game they never controlled. They hung on to make history, their fourth title to put them on a par with Toulouse.
You have to credit their mental strength to hang in there on a day when so many things were going wrong for them. Man of the match James Ryan was one of the few players who looked like he had the game he was after. But when they had to slog it out they did just that, with captain Isa Nacewa — he had a game to forget — slotting six points on the winning straight to get them over the line.
Rain had been falling intermittently in Bilbao from early morning and while the 90 minutes before kick-off dried up, a heavy shower arrived just after the start. Not good for the game, and not good for the team who wanted to crack on. Both sides struggled to keep ball in hand which especially militated against Leinster who needed a high-tempo game to put pressure not only on the starting XV for Racing but a suspect bench. Instead it was stop-start stuff, a heap of box-kicking, and for Racing they would have been delighted to have split the difference between Teddy Iribaren and Johnny Sexton — 6-6.
Iribaren looked happy from the off, despite losing his partner Patrick Lambie inside three minutes. So before they had drawn breath the French side had lost their starting halfbacks from the semi-final. But in a slug-fest they were very competitive, and their work on the ground frustrated Leinster who could neither put pace nor continuity on their game.
So too did referee Wayne Barnes rub them up the wrong way. His decision not to bin Wenceslas Lauret, just before the break, for a deliberate block-down, beggared belief. Sexton took the points to level the game but a couple of minutes earlier the out-half had opted to take a quick tap — he had been shaping to kick to touch — rather than knock a penalty over from close range.
So they too would have been reasonably happy not to be trailing at halftime. Iribaren had put Racing ahead on three minutes for a hard enough call against Garry Ringrose for a high tackle, but Sexton squared the game on 16 minutes. Iribaren put Racing ahead again on 22 minutes, and then soon after Barnes had let Louis Dupichot off after his high challenge on Robbie Henshaw caused a clash of heads — it was a similar challenge to the decision made against Ringrose at the start of the game — Sexton got the chance to level the game again.
The half-time talk in the Leinster dressing room would have centred on keeping their count of penalties conceded (5-6 in their favour at half-time) down, for it was key to Racing having a foothold in the game. But five minutes into the new half they had conceded another two, the second of which was nailed by Iribaren to put Racing 9-6 ahead.
It was perfect for Racing, but no sooner had they got their noses in front again than Leinster at last got some momentum. It needed some decent carrying close to the breakdown before they could get some pace on their game but immediately it began to pay dividends with two penalty chances for Sexton, the first of which he nailed to tie the scores.
Was it a shift in power? Not even close. Iribaren was given another two shots, converting the second for a 12-9 lead before Nacewa replied — instead of Sexton — on 74 minutes to make it 12-12. Four minutes later he got another chance — this one bang in front of the posts — which he slotted for the lead.
They had to do some more defending before it was all over but crucially they did it without giving up another penalty. It forced Remi Tales to stand up and drop for goal. He missed by a country mile. Scorers — Leinster: Sexton 3 pens, Nacewa 2 pens. Racing: Iribaren 4 pens.
Leinster: R Kearney; I Nacewa (capt), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Larmour; J Sexton, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 62); C Healy (J McGrath 55), S Cronin (J Tracy 62), T Furlong (A Porter 66); D Toner, J Ryan; S Fardy, J Murphy (J Conan 62), D Leavy.
Racing: L Dupichot (J Rokococko 30-38 HIA); T Thomas, V Vakatawa, H Chavancy (capt), M Andreu; P Lambie (R Tales 3), T Iribaren; E Ben Arous (V Kakovin 55), C Chat (O Avei 59), C Gomes Sa (C Johnston 55); D Ryan, L Nakarawa; W Lauret, Y Nyanga, B le Roux (B Chouzenoux 69).
Leinster’s players celebrate their Champions Cup success and inset, penalty scorers Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton enjoy the moment. Photos: Ramsey Cardy