Chat cracks to tip the bal­ance in cagey af­fair

The Observer - Sport - - FOOTBALL EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP FINAL - Paul Rees

Rac­ing’s play­ers ran on to the pitch wear­ing berets, a nod to the host city that is re­garded as the cap­i­tal of the Basque re­gion. They did the same 31 years ago when play­ing a Top 14 match in Bay­onne, a pe­riod when some of the club’s play­ers formed the Eden Park leisure cloth­ing brand. When they faced Brive in April 1987, they took to the field in blaz­ers and pink bow ties and sported harem pants the fol­low­ing week against Toulouse.

They were known then as the show­biz kids but a cup fi­nal comes un­der the fac­tual rather than en­ter­tain­ment cat­e­gory. With heavy rain fall­ing, Dan Carter with­draw­ing from the bench with a ham­string strain and the player he was un­der­study­ing, Pat Lam­bie, last­ing two min­utes be­fore he suf­fered a knee in­jury, black seemed the ap­pro­pri­ate colour for Rac­ing, but it was so only at the end hav­ing matched Le­in­ster for ev­ery stride.

There had been a clue about Carter’s fit­ness on Wed­nes­day when he pulled out of a con­fer­ence call with jour­nal­ists just be­fore it was due to start.

Rac­ing were al­ready with­out their cap­tain and spir­i­tual guide, Maxime Machenaud, who suf­fered a knee in­jury in the penul­ti­mate round of the Top 14. His re­place­ment at scrum-half and as the side’s lead­ing goal-kicker was Teddy Irib­aren, a jour­ney­man No 9, who, at the age of 27, had spent most of his ca­reer in the shad­ows.

He did not need dark glasses to shield his eyes from the lime­light. A fo­cus in the week had been the likely in­flu­ence of the fly-halves, Johnny Sex­ton for Le­in­ster, the South African in­ter­na­tional Lam­bie and

Carter for Rac­ing, but with the wet ball mak­ing han­dling hazardous, the scrum-halves be­came the fo­cal point. Ibibaren, left-footed, put dis­tance on his box kicks while Luke McGrath weighted his more, con­scious of the dis­com­fort of two of Rac­ing’s back-three, Louis Dupi­chot and Marc An­dreu, who dropped too deep to field the high ball.

Wales was once said to have had a fly-half fac­tory but scrum-halves come off they pro­duc­tion line in France, vir­tu­ally cloned. They tend to be small and wiry and lead tac­ti­cally. So, al­though Rac­ing had their sec­ond choice in the po­si­tion, part­nered for most of the match by the third call at fly-half, Rémi Talès, a 34 year old with 24 France caps, the con­di­tions had more im­pact on their pat­tern of play than in­juries. The best de­fence in the com­pe­ti­tion held but not dis­ci­pline.

Le­in­ster, who equalled Toulouse’s record of four Euro­pean Cup tri­umphs, had swept all be­fore them in Europe but Rac­ing were pre­pared. They used Irib­aren to play for po­si­tion, their big ball-car­ri­ers tak­ing out de­fend­ers to give the scrum-half the time to kick, and Le­in­ster, who ini­tially strug­gled to force turnovers, cleared out quickly and ef­fec­tively.

Le­in­ster’s jour­ney to Bil­bao had seen them re­cy­cle ball at will but here they strug­gled at the break­down on their own ball where the Rac­ing hooker, Camille Chat, was the main sabo­teur.

It made for a cagey af­fair that from the start was a bat­tle of the boot, in the air and off the tee. French teams are known for a ten­dency to flag in the fi­nal quar­ter Isa Nacewa seals the win­ning points for Le­in­ster after tak­ing over kick­ing du­ties from Johnny Sex­ton and al­though Le­in­ster did not lead in the first 77 min­utes Rac­ing, who have played in two fi­nals in the past three years with­out scor­ing a try, were never more than three points ahead.

There was a sense that Le­in­ster were wait­ing for the clos­ing mo­ments but Rac­ing were like a rash no salve could sooth. Ibibaren re­stored his side’s lead with 10 min­utes to go and then took the kick-off from Rob Kear­ney, leap­ing high into the air to off­set his height dis­ad­van­tage only to then con­cede a penalty for a no-arms tackle that en­abled Isa Nacewa to equalise.

It looked des­tined for ex­tra time, un­less Sex­ton could equal his feat at the start of the Six Na­tions when he dropped a goal with time up to se­cure vic­tory for Ire­land in Paris, but in a match ad­dled with penal­ties, there was an in­evitabil­ity about one team hav­ing a fi­nal chance.

It was Rac­ing who cracked, Chat stray­ing off­side un­der his own posts for Nacewa to put Le­in­ster ahead after they had been pe­nalised in at­tack. Rac­ing had one fi­nal chance but Talès was no Sex­ton and hooked his drop goal. From berets to buried.

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