Le­in­ster look­ing to Basque in fi­nal glory

Cullen’s men have the abil­ity, the hunger and the ex­pe­ri­ence to see off French side

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley Rugby Cor­re­spon­dent in Bil­bao, Spain

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.

Clever pitch

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.

Adapt­able

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.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DAN SHERI­DAN/INPHO

Johnny Sex­ton looks sky­wards dur­ing the Cap­tain’s Run at San Mamés Sta­dium, Bil­bao, Spain.

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