Le­in­ster’s men­tal strength edges arm wres­tle

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - BRENDAN FAN­NING

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

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