DONAL LENIHAN: The scary thing? Leinster capable of getting better

The fact that Leinster were made fight much harder than had been anticipated to prevail in a pulsating Champions Cup final that went right down to the last kick off the game will, you feel, stand to their exciting young squad in the years to come.

For some in their ranks, scaling the heights of the club and international game in the infancy of their careers, they must be wondering what all the fuss is about.

If the Grand Slam success over England was delivered without undue stress, having to fight for every inch to add a Champions Cup medal to what is shaping up to be an unforgettable season will, you feel, stand even more to their development over the months and years to come.

The fact that Racing 92 were within a Remi Tales drop goal with that final kick of the game to extend an absorbing contest into extra time for only the third time in the tournament’s history offered conclusive proof of how close it was.

The fact that it was Tales taking that kick said everything you need to know about the character of this Racing side who overcame one setback after another recently to give Leinster the fright of their lives.

Not once in the eight games they had won in the tournament this season were they pushed anywhere close to the brink of defeat. By winning they become only the second side, along with Saracens, to go unbeaten throughout an entire campaign which is a magnificent achievement.

Massive credit must go to a Racing side that lost their talismanic captain Maxime Machenaud two weeks before the final, their Springbok out half Pat Lambie after only three minutes of action and his direct replacement Dan Carter on the morning of the game.

The debate as to whether Carter should have started ahead of Lambie became redundant almost immediately when the South African was forced off after twisting his knee when making a brilliant line break to ease Racing into the contest.

Yet, despite all those setbacks or maybe because of them, they pushed Leinster to the brink.

Machenaud’ s direct replacement Teddy Iribaren had a sensational game and was instrumental in keeping Leinster pinned back in their own half for long periods through the excellence of his kicking game.

The fact that Leinster only took the lead for the first time in the 78th minute of the game says everything about the challenge that Racing presented on the day. Speaking in advance of the final, former All Black Chris Masoe, in his capacity as Racing’s breakdown coach, highlighted that from his experience of playing against Leinster in the past for Toulon, you have no chance against them unless you devise a way to stop their momentum.

Given how successful Racing were in slowing down the speed of Leinster’s recycle in the opening half, he succeeded in doing just that.

With Luke McGrath forced to go digging for the ball on too many occasions, Racing had ample time to realign in defence. Their line speed was so aggressive, it succeeded spectacularly in closing off the avenues that normally open up for Leinster in attack.

They gambled big time in employing midfield shooters who continually shut down any semblance of space available to Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose. Their physicality in the tackle bordered on the reckless but, despite conceding a number of penalties for high tackles — as did Leinster — the means justified the end in keeping the famed Leinster attack tryless.

That said, given the number of penalties Racing conceded in their own twenty two, it was difficult to fathom how referee Wayne Barnes failed to issue a yellow card, especially when Leone Nakarawa was guilty of a deliberate knock on with Leinster in a very promising attacking position.

Whatever about Racing, who have now lost two Champions Cup finals in three years, the old adage of having to lose one to win one doesn’t hold any credence for Leinster. That’s four Heineken/Champions Cup final wins since their inaugural appearance back in 2009 and four gold stars on the famous blue jersey to mark a 100% return. That puts them up there with Toulouse with the most tournament wins.

Tack on the victory over Stade Francais from their only Challenge Cup final appearance in 2013 and it’s clear that European finals don’t faze Leinster to any great degree. That said, some serious questions were asked of them on this occasion and they didn’t always cope with those in the manner we have become accustomed.

There was an uncharacteristic lack of composure and an indecisiveness about the way they went about their business, especially in the key period before half time. Leinster were rattled and given the stranglehold Racing had on the game in the opening 40 minutes, they must have been happy to reach that point on level terms.

The second half was no different and the prospect of Racing not being able to stay the course never really materalised. It took until the final quarter for Leinster to finally wear Racing down and force them into the concession of two crucial penalties that Isa Nacewa was only too happy to convert at a time when Johnny Sexton was nursing a groin strain.

Fitting that Leinster’s 35- year-old captain should have the final say in an outstanding career in his last European appearance when kicking those decisive penalties at the death to close out this final.

At the other end of the age profile it was probably of even more significance for the longer term that is was a towering figure from the opposite end of the experience scale who did most to turn this dogfight into a victory. James Ryan, again, was magnificent. His technical excellence at the set piece, incessant work rate in contact and in the carrying stakes highlighted what the 21-year-old second row sensation has to offer Leinster for years to come. He was the one who kept driving Leinster forward. And to think he will only get better with more games under his belt.

That’s now 21 professional games for Leinster and Ireland without experiencing the emptiness of defeat. Inevitably, that will come and he will no doubt learn from that too. On this occasion, his will to win, along with that of Dan Leavy who also put in another exhaustive shift, was crucial in getting Leinster over the line.

Once again Leinster proved that they have the capacity to prevail despite the challenges imposed by the opposition. This may not have been the open running game they favour but, when the chips were down and they were required to slug it out in the trenches, they were not found wanting.

A word too for the other Ryan in the second row, exiled Munster favourite Donnacha, who also gave everything to the Racing cause despite being handicapped by a heavy knock on the shoulder from early in the game. 

No surprise when he appeared to be the go to man on the final whistle for all the Leinster players to offer their sympathies.

With a six-year monkey off their backs, Leinster have what it takes to follow in the recent footsteps of Toulon and Saracens and take Europe by storm for the foreseeable future.

It is up to others to match their standards if they want to wrest the mantle of Europe’s best club from the new champions. The biggest obstacle for the chasing pack on that front is the fact that Leinster are capable of getting even better.


Lifestyle

We hear a lot about the geese, ducks and swans that arrive here from colder climes for the winter, but much less about smaller birds that come here to escape harsher conditions in northern Europe.Keep an eye out for redwings this winter

More From The Irish Examiner