Rac­ing stayed un­til the end but Le­in­ster’s abil­ity to ad­just saw them home

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Rugby European Champions Cup final - Liam Toland liamtoland@ya­hoo.com

My heart crum­bled for Don­nacha Ryan and in his fi­nal act on the pitch he was un­able to hug his fallen team-mates with both arms so badly dam­aged was his left shoul­der.

At 6-6 with both teams leav­ing the pitch for half-time, I felt the mar­gins had swung in Le­in­ster’s favour. They’d weath­ered the con­sid­er­able Rac­ing storm in the knowl­edge that the Parisians’ grow­ing in­jury list would im­pact their end game. How Rac­ing needed Dan Carter for that fi­nal pass and drop goal. Had he been there, then what?

That it all took to the 78th minute with Isa Nacewa and his ‘liathróidí cru­ach’ goal kick­ing is wor­thy of deep anal­y­sis over com­ing weeks.

Rac­ing were bril­liant – or should I say Rac­ing scrumhalf Teddy Irib­aren was sen­sa­tional, not just in the man­ner in which he kicked but in the man­ner, with all around him crum­bling through in­jury, he bul­lied the fix­ture of­ten ig­nor­ing his third choice out­half in tak­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity him­self.

But at 6-6 things were point­ing Le­in­ster’s way (in the­ory).

I doff my cap to the the Rac­ing coaches who tar­geted Le­in­ster suc­cess­fully in a num­ber of ways. The first was through the li­ne­out. The very first Le­in­ster li­ne­out was called into the mid­dle. This is where Don­nacha Ryan was loi­ter­ing and it seemed a strange ini­tial tar­get. Ryan wasn’t able to get his Mun­ster paws on it, but he was tuned in to Le­in­ster and did enough to dis­rupt the crisp li­ne­out flow.

Mas­sive les­son

Soon after he was able to get his hands on a Le­in­ster li­ne­out – it proved a mas­sive les­son for Le­in­ster and hugely costly for both Ryan and Rac­ing. True to form Le­in­ster soon ad­justed where the vast ma­jor­ity of li­ne­out ball to hit the front and James Ryan.

It’s not the ideal launch pad, forc­ing a riskier pass from Luke McGrath, but for two rea­sons it worked.

Firstly it avoided Ryan, but more im­por­tantly (and I’m not sure it was the Le­in­ster plan) from that ter­ri­ble li­ne­out crash Ryan’s left shoul­der was to­tally ban­jaxed.

Yes. Le­in­ster laid hands on him, but it was the Rac­ing lifters aban­don­ing him that caused the dam­age. Ei­ther way, my heart crum­bled for Ryan and in his fi­nal act on the pitch he was un­able to hug his fallen team-mates with both arms so badly dam­aged was his left shoul­der.

That he played for 70 min­utes or so was sim­ply Her­culean; he did more than most to get Rac­ing into this fi­nal. Ryan’s was the most sig­nif­i­cant in­jury on the fix­ture, on Rac­ing, negat­ing his in­flu­ence around the pitch but es­pe­cially his abil­ity to lift the player in front at li­ne­out time and spoil Le­in­ster’s plat­form. All Le­in­ster had to do was tar­get the Rac­ing man in front of Ryan and it was an “easy” tar­get. Le­in­ster knew this and ad­justed.

Sec­ondly, Rac­ing tar­geted Le­in­ster’s Cirque du Soleil pre­ci­sion, es­pe­cially in midfield. This spoiled first phase ball and the Rac­ing de­fence then pow­ered off the line (some­times a wee bit early). They made some big de­fen­sive reads and ex­e­cu­tions, and the pre­ci­sion that has opened doors for Le­in­ster all sea­son ap­peared to crum­ble un­der the Rac­ing line speed and phys­i­cal­ity. This was un­der­stand­able and once again Le­in­ster had to ad­just.

It was in this as­pect that Seán O’Brien was sorely missed. What fun he would have had in this cor­ri­dor, es­pe­cially as I won­dered on Fri­day how the Le­in­ster back­row would solve Rac­ing prob­lems be­fore they be­came Johnny Sex­ton’s?

Well, Rac­ing were to pose many that O’Brien could have solved. That he was ab­sent is no re­flec­tion of the start­ing back­row, who were out­stand­ing again, but his phys­i­cal­ity would have been use­ful.

We can’t ig­nore the prin­ci­ple of fa­tigue ei­ther. Rac­ing had been ex­pected to fade, but you can’t tire the op­po­si­tion if they are dic­tat­ing their tac­tics upon you. For much of the game Rac­ing were able to con­trol the ball through Irib­aren man­ag­ing his fat­ties and play­ing a kick­ing game.

In snatches, Le­in­ster were able to get into their stride and when they did it didn’t re­quire huge in­no­va­tion, sim­ply the abil­ity to shift the point of at­tack and keep the ball away from con­tact. When this hap­pened, even briefly, Rac­ing be­gan to leak er­rors.

Rugby in­tel­li­gence

What was Teddy Thomas think­ing in that cru­cial endgame? Rac­ing had claimed a great turnover at the li­ne­out and the ball ar­rived to Thomas in­side his 22. The wing re­quired rugby in­tel­li­gence, rugby dis­ci­pline. What was he think­ing? Op­tion a) put two passes on the ball? Op­tion b) kick long? Or op­tion c) aban­don all logic, leave your 22 run­ning into heavy traf­fic and to­wards the touch­line and into touch? Was it Le­in­ster’s game that ul­ti­mately fa­tigued Thomas into poor rugby in­tel­li­gence?

By the 78th minute Le­in­ster were ex­hausted too but still think­ing. Was this down to fit­ness, Em­met Far­rell’s top class anal­y­sis, a team cul­ture or sim­ply the love of be­ing Le­in­ster?

So a word to Le­in­ster – not the team but the province. The won­der­ful sym­bi­otic na­ture of Leo Cullen and Stuart Lan­caster’s re­la­tion­ship is hugely im­por­tant, but I no­ticed Johnny O’Ha­gan hug­ging Cullen pitch side and mem­o­ries flooded back. Four stars are won be­cause the man­age­ment set a vi­sion and a cul­ture.

On the flight to Bil­bao I over­heard two avid Le­in­ster men from Ur­ling­ford, Co Kilkenny, dis­cussing the first round of the Mun­ster hurl­ing cham­pi­onship; analysing every step and not­ing how Tip­per­ary would be so hard to beat. It was fas­ci­nat­ing lis­ten­ing to the seam­less segue be­tween hurl­ing and rugby.

All around the mag­nif­i­cent San Mamés Sta­dium the Le­in­ster ac­cents were var­ied and broad. A word too on all the youths, clubs and schools that feed into the ma­chine – a ma­chine which hasn’t re­quired an oli­garch and a mon­ster cheque book to buy suc­cess. This is be­cause the coaches, teach­ers and men­tors around the province are build­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of dream­ers who will soon add to the four.

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