Leinster didn’t play especially well in Bilbao last Saturday, which in itself offers Munster hope ahead of tomorrow’s PRO14 semi-final.
But the timeline of the final 12 minutes is the telling of the tale from the Champions Cup final, the difference between Leinster and Racing in some respects.
In the first instance if Pat Lambie had stayed on the pitch or Dan Carter had been on the bench, the cup was going to Paris. I strongly believe that. At 9-9 Leinster are there for the taking. 69 minutes on the clock. Teddy Iribaren kicks Racing back ahead with a penalty, but the occasion demands seven points. They needed a try there with a sustained bit of pressure at a pivotal moment of the final.
Thereafter the timeline is peppered with errors made by Racing. Virimi Vakatawa lifts Rob Kearney’s leg beyond horizontal. Penalty. He can say it was harsh and perhaps it was from Wayne Barnes, but it was a silly, thoughtless moment, he will recognise that now.
The mind is a powerful force. The body will go where the mind takes it. Leinster weren’t allowed to dominate their opponent because Racing has the physicality a lot of other teams in Europe don’t possess.
Also Racing were fitter than Leinster might have assumed they would be. But at some moment late in the piece, there’s a psychological fault-line we all face which can give way to disciplinary transgressions. An incapacity to go to the finish line and beyond on the mental front.
The mind’s No Mas moment that offers that seductive option of the easy out. The bad decision. There comes a point in your brain when it realises you are lifting an opponent off the ground even though part of you is begging yourself to stop.
Leinster’s penalty secures the lineout on the Racing 22. And Leone Nakawara is about to underline once again why coaches are often happy to let him be, to do his stuff. Because he’s a once-off. Sprinkled through the final are frustrating moments from Leone where he is trying offloads that clearly aren’t on.
Except for the Fijian, they are on for a man with an Olympic gold medal in his arse pocket for Sevens Rugby. He has unbelievable hands and he can do incredible things (though probably not bat opposition ball down!).
Those seeing Leone last Saturday for the first time saw his very optimistic idea of what constitutes an offload opportunity. Believe me that is a weekly occurrence. And in training, we’d shake our heads and mumble ‘Leone, there’s no way that ball is every going to escape from that situation, what are you doing?’
And yet I could show video after video of occasions when he is wrapped up by five players and the ball has emerged. Fijians love roaming in open space but sometimes, you’d love if he just tucked the ball and carried with a bit of a leg drive.
But he’s a serial offloader and you can’t really dispute it because he pulls off stuff that no other forward in the game would even try.
And for this Leinster lineout, Leone’s about to do it again. Produce a moment.
Steal Leinster ball. And his forward colleagues see that chink of light at the end of the tunnel. We are getting out of this spot. We got the lift right, nailed the Leinster call and worst-case scenario, we set the ruck and get it out of there.
nd then Teddy Thomas has his moment of madness. Watch back the reaction of the Racing forwards at that moment. The body language, the disgust. The hard bit done. The policy on turnover ball is two passes and out, because you don’t have a structured defence in front of you. Two flat passes to get the ball out of there but instead Teddy is guilty of the one thing you must never do.
Don’t hunt the touchline. It is the gravest of faults running into touch with the ball. However, the consistency of opinion here has been that it never comes down to just one incident.
But there were errors in the final ten minutes from Racing that signalled a weakening of their psychological break wall when the game was on the line.
Dan Carter did his hamstring in training last Thursday. It was more than a tweak. It was desperately unfortunate for him and for Racing, but that’s the way he is. Us old fellas forget the body clock at times and try to block out signals from the brain to body. But when you are the world’s greatest out-half, it’s hard.
He has his standards and he pushes himself, but he pushed it a bit too hard in training. It wasn’t just that pivotal last 15 minutes that was tailor-made, it was the entire 80 of cat and mouse rugby he would have revelled in.
Don’t forget too that Pat Lambie was crackling with electricity in those initial exchanges. He ripped Leinster apart in the first play, up the middle.
You don’t see that too often against a team like Leinster in the first three minutes of a European Cup final.
With neither available, Teddy Iribaren stepped up. In signposting his talents in the Examiner last week, I didn’t go far enough. His 60m drilled kicks are the antidote to the box kick, a bit reminiscent of Warren Gatland’s Wales of a decade ago.
The key was that Teddy was managing to find grass all day. This was no flash in the pan. If there was a replay tomorrow, he would do the same again.
It was a really shrewd piece of business by Laurent Labit to lure him to Racing from Brive. He’s uber-confident, which you need in that position.
He has a great nose for the game and you need two really good players in each position if you want to conquer Europe. Racing are well served at nine with Machenaud and Iribaren.
Budget isn’t the issue here, remember. He wasn’t an expensive signing, but he is an indication of what’s available on the market if clubs do some thorough research.
The Champions Cup is a passion of Jacky Lorenzetti’s. Because they’ve been so close, two finals in three years, it will increase the pressure now on the club to produce a winning final performance. Leinster has advertised the template for same. Digging out a win by playing cup rugby is a fundamental tool of a top quality side.
The reaction to the final here in New Zealand has been informative.
What? No tries in the final? There’s a weird fascination that you could have 80 minutes of rugby without a try. I am telling them that defences are very good in the northern hemisphere. There’s learnings on both sides.
I’ve also had to remind some people here too that only two seasons ago Leinster went zero-for-four in their pool games in Europe against Bath, Wasps and Toulon twice.
It was Leo Cullen’s first year in charge, in fairness, and came on the heels of the 2015 World Cup. But a good number of last Saturday’s players were involved in those defeats.
Whether that amounts to a resounding endorsement of the progress under Leo (whose management deserves kudos) or what Stuart Lancaster has brought to the set-up is a matter of perspective.
But for anyone assuming this all heralds a period of European dominance for Leinster, it’s worth reflecting on that.
I’ve read that James Ryan is now one of the best players in the world which underlines how illogical discussion gets at times. He is a serious talent, and for Ireland’s sake, I hope his upward trajectory continues apace.
However, it’s never wise to form an opinion of that scale on someone until his appearances at a high level are up in the sixties and seventies.