Leinster looking to Basque in final glory
Cullen’s men have the ability, the hunger and the experience to see off French side
It feels new, it feels different and, as the French would say, it’s énorme. The 53,000 all-seater San Mamés Stadium was still being built when Leinster won their last European Champions Cup, in 2012, and, as Spain becomes the sixth country to host a final, the best team in Europe stand on the threshold of history no less, which only serves to heighten the fear as well as the hope.
Located just 2kms from the old city centre in Bilbao, the San Mamés Stadium welcomed the two teams for their captain’s run yesterday. With the memory of last season’s semi-final defeat to Clermont still vivid, Leinster’s focus was palpable.
Facing into his 61st and last European game for Leinster, their captain Isa Nacewa was asked for his emotions. “No emotions,” he said with a smile. “It’s just normal. It’s just another week for me. I’ll have plenty of time in the future to think about that, but it’s just routine.”
Leinster are just one win away from joining Toulouse as four-time winners, which will mean Nacewa, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Devin Toner can join Cedric Heymans and Frederic Michalak as the only players to have featured in four winning finals. But not only can the Leinster quartet all achieve the feat with the same team, all bar Toner are also starting their fourth final.
Yet, while admitting to feeling additional nerves all week as he approaches a rendezvous with his former club, Sexton maintained: “They’re the things that drag you off during the week, that get you dreaming and get you thinking about things that you shouldn’t be thinking about.”
It was, he said, performing himself, making the team tick and winning.
Spain harbours good memories for Racing, who won the French Championship final in Barcelona’s Camp Nou two years ago, but Leo Cullen made a clever pitch to the many Basque neutrals.
“I came over here last week to look at the stadium and it is an amazing place. The players are pretty excited being out there today. They understand some of the traditions with the [Athletic Bilbao] club as well; very similar to ourselves in that we base a lot of things on homegrown players.”
Indeed, 18 of Leinster’s match-day 23 are homegrown including the Athlone-born Robbie Henshaw, whereas only four of Racing’s squad played for their under-18s and only two of them are from Paris: Eddy Ben Arous and Henry Chavancy.
As expected, Jordan Larmour replaces the injured Fergus McFadden, and Luke McGrath is restored. Yet given McGrath’s ankle injury (his right knee was heavily strapped yesterday) Jamison Gibson-Park provides cover. Thus, faced with their three-into-two “non-EU” riddle, Scott Fardy’s value means James Lowe misses out due to the two “non-European” restriction.
Larmour certainly adds to Leinster’s X factor, albeit it is only his 12th Leinster start, and third in Europe. It’s tough on Lowe but, as Cullen noted, it’s tough on others too, Leinster having used 37 players in their eight games to date. Remarkably, only six of the opening line-up against Montpellier are in this starting XV. Rhys Ruddock also returns at the expense of Ross Molony on the bench.
For their part, Racing make only one change from the semi-final, with Teddy Iribaren replacing the injured Maxime Machenaud. Ole Avei comes in for the stricken Dimitri Szarzewski, while Census Johnston, Boris Palu and Antoine Gibert are promoted to the bench. Dan Carter is on the bench, and Juan Imhoff can’t even make the 23, which tells us much.
Any team that makes the final of the European Champions Cup clearly aren’t mugs. They’re a wily bunch, and have won 16 of their last 19 matches. Akin to Leinster, they are now three games away from completing a double they just missed out on two seasons ago.
Racing will bring a superb defensive line-out, the best defence in the Top 14 and real X factor in the extraordinary Leone Nakarawa, aka “Mr Octopus”, Virimi Vakatawa and, of course, Teddy Thomas.
Racing are also adaptable, and, as with any team coached by Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, will have analysed Leinster. They won’t have found many weaknesses but, tellingly, when Sexton was asked if it was an advantage having played with Racing, he smiled and said: “Is it an advantage for them or an advantage for me?” Racing will try to rattle his cage.
Leinster, akin to Ireland, monopolise possession, and the unrelenting high tempo and 99 per cent accuracy of their recycling in the semi-final ensures Racing’s gameplan will be predicated on slowing the pace of the game. They are very clever in identifying when to contest and when to fill the pitch, with Yannick Nyanga – a young tearaway openside converted into a mightily effective number eight – Nakarawa, Vakatawa, the underrated Wenceslas Lauret and even the props all effective over the ball.
Alas, unlike yesterday’s glorious weather, the forecast is for cooler temperatures of 13 degrees and rain, even if this might relent come kick-off. But if it slows the game down, like Ireland-France matches, it may therefore suit Racing more.
There’s also the nagging fact that only Saracens have previously won all nine matches in a season, in 2015/16. But that demonstrates that Leinster have been the best team in Europe, and, as with Toulouse, Leicester, Wasps, Munster, themselves, Toulon and Saracens when all in their pomp, the best team usually wins the competition.
It may be tight, like a chess game, but Leinster have the ability, the hunger and the experience, and they’ll also draw energy from the bigger support.
Johnny Sexton looks skywards during the Captain’s Run at San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao, Spain.
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