By Simon Lewis
Leinster were crowned Champions Cup winners and European champions for the fourth time at the San Mamés Stadium on Saturday night as they held their nerve to sink a valiant effort from Racing 92.
In a tense, often ferocious game that went to the wire, it needed a missed drop goal from Racing’s replacement fly-half Remi Tales 39 seconds after the 80 minutes were up to seal a victory that had seen Leinster take the lead for the first time just 90 seconds earlier.
Johnny Sexton and Teddy Iribaren had traded three penalties apiece before Leinster captain Isa Nacewa assumed kicking duties and nailed two nerveless penalty goals in the final six minutes for a remarkable win.
As Racing’s players sank to their knees, Leinster’s newly crowned champions went wild with delight, Sexton, Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Nacewa claiming their fourth winners’ medals, never having lost a final but this one was a real nailbiter.
Already missing goal-kicking and play-making scrum-half Maxime Machenaud following an injury, Racing were dealt a further blow when an hour before kick-off the Parisians revealed that fly-half Dan Carter had been withdrawn from the replacements due to a hamstring problem. Fellow veteran Remi Tales took the All Black legend’s place on the bench but it was another blow to the French club’s hopes of a first European title as Leinster eyed their fourth.
The Irishmen were already red-hot, odds-on favourites as the breaking news filtered through the San Mamés and there was further woe for the Top 14 side when starting fly-half Pat Lambie suffered an ankle injury after just three minutes. Racing had started strongly and the South African’s linebreak had Leinster scrambling, with Johnny Sexton making the tackle on the Springbok, who seemed to turn his ankle as he went ground.
He would soon depart, replaced by Tales as Carter looked on from the stands while his inexperienced half-back partner, Machenaud’s stand-in Teddy Iribaren was quickly into service as Leinster conceded a penalty under pressure at the breakdown. The 27-year-old former Brive scrum-half took the kick, showing perfect composure to give his side the first three points of the game.
Leinster had not started well at all, though they defended much better than Munster had managed in the opening 20 minutes of their semi-final, when Racing took a 21-0 lead. Still, Leo Cullen’s side were struggling for fluency and it took 16 minutes to get any sort of momentum, captain Isa Nacewa breaking into the opposition 22 having slipped a Donnacha Ryan tackle and advancing his side to the five-metre line where Leinster earned a ruck penalty. Sexton levelled from the tee but still his side were second-best to Racing in a ferocious opening period.
Iribaren was having a stormer, the scrum-half launching an inch-perfect kick 75 metres upfield and into touch inside the Leinster 22, the Irish lineout creaking and conceding another penalty, which the number nine coolly dispatched to put his side into a 6-3 lead.
Leinster gradually found a way into the game but a Sexton decision to tap and go inside the Racing 22 with a penalty he had shaped to put into the corner backfired. He had passed to Dan Leavy who crashed into contact on five metres only for hooker Camille Chat to clamp over the ball and force the penalty for not releasing.
In such a tight game it looked a wasted opportunity but Sexton was handed another chance two minutes before the break as Racing appeared to fade close to the interval, Leone Nakarawa penalised for a deliberate knock-on and the Leinster fly-half equalising to send the teams in at 6-6.
The tension would not fade after half-time as Iribaren’s red-clad left boot sent over another penalty four minutes after the restart, Sexton responding 10 minutes later. Racing were tiring and their error count rising and so too the penalty count.
Yet Sexton missed badly from long-range on 57 minutes and even the previously magnificent Iribaren fell short soon after.
The momentum ebbed and flowed as it became increasingly likely that mistakes would determine the destination of this still tryless contest. Racing got their maul driving at last and earned a penalty which Iribaren sent between the posts from the right touchline to edge the French side back in front at 12-9 with nine minutes remaining.
Leinster needed to roll the dice and they at last got some go-forward, forwards and backs combining down the right wing before cutting inside and winning a priceless penalty 15 metres in from touch. This time though, it was Nacewa who took charge of the tee in his final European game before retiring at the end of the season.
If it was a pressure kick, Nacewa did not show it, the wing firing over the ball to level once more at 12-all with six minutes to go.
With the game still in the balance, Racing threatened down the right but a tip tackle turned the ball over, Sexton finding touch on the 22 only for Nakarawa to steal the ensuing lineout. If Leinster thought they had blown their chance, Teddy Thomas handed them another, running the ball back and straight into Jack Conan who tackled him into touch, handing the Irishmen another opportunity.
This one they took, working the ball in from the lineout and earning a penalty in front of the posts, Racing’s nerves pushing their defenders offside. Nacewa buried the kick and with 90 seconds to go Leinster were finally in front.
Still there was tension as Racing won the restart ball and worked the ball into kicking range, only for Tales to come up short at the crucial moment. His miss would hand Racing a second final defeat in three seasons and send the Leinster fans in the 52,282 crowd into raptures.