Donal Lenihan examines the decisive factors today at the San Mamés Stadium
Perhaps the most important aspect of head coaching is to get the selection right. With the benefit of hindsight, Johann van Graan might accept, privately, that he got the composition of his back three wrong for the semi-final against Racing 92 by omitting Simon Zebo.
Leinster’s choices in that area were strongly influenced by Fergus McFadden’s unfortunate hamstring tear and the return of first choice scrum-half Luke McGrath from injury. All of a sudden Maori All Black sensation James Lowe was back in the equation. However, doubts over McGrath’s capacity to last 80 minutes means Lowe has had to be sacrificed with his fellow Kiwi No 9 Jamison Gibson-Park included as bench cover with Lowe losing out to EPCR’s regulation surrounding non-European players.
The net result sees Isa Nacewa, Leinster’s captain and greatest ever overseas signing stationed on left wing. That pits him against Teddy Thomas who is in the form of his life, not an easy task for a 35-year-old winger. Perhaps Lowe’s tendency to switch off defensively at times or commit too early, which could prove catastrophic against a proven finisher of Thomas’s quality, was also a factor in the management thought process.
The big winner here is Jordon Larmour who is parachuted in on the right wing, where his defensive skills will also be tested, for only a third ever start in the Champions Cup. The rest of the Leinster side pretty much picks itself.
As forward coach, Laurent Travers’ biggest concern coming into this game is how Racing will cope with the power of the Leinster scrum. Against Munster, with the advance knowledge that temperatures were set to hit a high of 26 degrees, he made the call to dispense with his 23st tight head in Ben Tameifuna in favour of the greater carrying and breakdown effectiveness provided by Cedate Gomes Sa.
While Racing were exposed in the scrum, there weren’t enough of them for Munster to engineer any great return. With rain forecast for today along with temperatures in the mid-teens at best, Tameifuna and Census Johnson, who is now available after suspension, were back in the selection mix. Travers has opted to stick with Gomes Sa at tight head which, I’m sure, will please both Cian Healy and Jack McGrath. That call by Travers could have a big bearing on this contest as the Leinster scrum looks poised to wreak havoc.
The other big decision facing the Racing management is how best to cope with the loss of the superb Maxime Machenaud, not to mind his ability as frontline goal kicker. Teddy Iribaren was always going to be his direct replacement at scrum-half but, in Machenaud’s absence, the big question was whether Racing would opt for Dan Carter’s greater presence, experience and proven pedigree as a goal kicker over Pat Lambie’s good form of late. I would also question the omission of Argentina’s Juan Imhoff from their back three.
The challenge for Racing now is to be within touching distance of Leinster when Carter is sprung from the bench. These key selection calls may well have made that a more difficult task.
2. Midfield superiority
If the Lions were touring this summer, not only would Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose be certainties to make the squad, they would be in pole position to start the opening test. As a trio, they offer the perfect mix of intelligent game management, solidity in defence and a variety in attack that has the opposition defense on edge at all times.
The Racing 92 midfield of Henry Chavancy and Virimi Vakatawa proved too strong defensively and too elusive in attack for Munster in Bordeaux. The power, pace and stepping ability of Vakatawa, who oscillated between the centre and wing in the past, proved Munster’s ultimate undoing as he created opportunities that the superb Teddy Thomas was only too happy to finish.
That explosiveness early on laid the platform for Racing’s win but Leinster are unlikely to be as complicit. Sexton knows Vakatawa well from his two seasons in Paris and knows that, despite his undoubted strengths, his defensive qualities in that key outside centre channel can be exposed.
In Ringrose, Leinster have the perfect weapon to exploit that. Henshaw’s remarkable performance in the quarter final against Scarlets, after a lengthy absence through injury, will already have the Racing midfield on high alert. If they over commit defensively on the inside, Sexton will be ready to exploit any hint of space that might offer by putting Ringrose through the gap.
Arguably the most impressive aspect of Racing’s performance against Munster was their defence. It has proved a vibrant weapon in the Top 14 where they boast the best record in the league, conceding just 45 tries in 26 games. That said, not all French teams are as focused or organised in their defensive duties as Racing.
In Leinster they will come up against a side that is every bit as good without the ball. Just ask the Scarlets. They had been opening up defences both domestically and in Europe with ease until they ran into an impregnable wall in their semi-final in Dublin.
While Henshaw’s remarkable return from surgery proved instrumental in that, it was Sexton’s ability to control and dictate matters that was decisive. Again this week we have had the now predictable mantra of the opposition targeting Sexton, a player they know well. I would suggest that the Sexton leading the Leinster charge today is far removed from the frustrated figure who spent two seasons in Paris from 2013 to 2015.
If anything it will be Leinster, and their back row in particular, that will be seeking to pile the pressure on the opposition half backs in Iribaren and Lambie.
3. Tactical flexibility
The thing that separates Leinster from the rest is their ability to play in a variety of different ways. With two quality international front rows containing three British and Irish Lions props, they have the capacity to launch a sustained assault in every scrum while the presence of three quality international ball-winning second rows in their pack should ensure a productive lineout.
Donnacha Ryan will seek to dismantle that platform but Leinster will have noted that Racing competed in the air on close in defensive lineouts which will encourage Devin Toner to keep things simple on their throw and launch an excellent maul.
The likelihood of a solid platform up front will enable their quality back row set the terms of engagement in contact and at the breakdown. That is where Leinster really excelled against Scarlets by being very direct, physical and accurate. Racing won this key battle against Munster when Yannick Nyanga, Wenceslas Lauret and Bernard Le Roux were outstanding.
The influencing factor in Travers retaining Gomes Sa along with Eddy Ben Arous as their starting props is their ability to complement that back row at the breakdown and in contact where both excelled in the semi-final. Factor in also the freakish talent Leone Nakawara brings and you have an extremely mobile and athletic pack.
Leinster will be well aware of the attributes this Racing pack bring in broken play and will, therefore, seek to drag them into a dogfight up front. Apart from Ryan, a major question mark hangs over their ability to match Leinster’s doggedness on that front.
The secret of this Leinster side is their ability to mix the way they play and adjust on the hoof, to recognise what’s happening in front of them and react with a change of direction. That means they are very difficult to dominate for long periods. Racing will enjoy their periods in the ascendancy today but if it is sustained for any period then you would be confident that Leinster have the wherewithal, with Sexton and Wallaby Scott Fardy playing key leadership roles, to respond and counter.
That is what makes them so difficult to beat. That, more than anything, is why I expect them to join Toulouse as the only four-time winner of the greatest prize in European club rugby.
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