Chat cracks to tip the balance in cagey affair
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.