DONAL LENIHAN: There’s a steel to this Racing side that will have Leinster on edge

Racing's Maxime Machenaud walks down towards the dressing room with his son Gaspard. Pic: Inpho/James Crombie

Every sports person has experienced those god-awful days when you wish the ground would swallow you up, when you’d prefer to stick you head in the sand or become invisible to all and sundry.

There are times when anonymity works just fine. For Munster’s finest, that’s difficult to find. It could be worse. 

Even in their worst moments, such as having to face into the journey home immediately after the shattering semi-final defeat to Racing 92 at the Stade Chaban Delmas recently, the compassion of the large Munster support was there for all to see.

If anything, it made the defeat even harder to swallow. Visibly shattered after their experience a few hours earlier when the explosive opening from the Parisian side left Munster with an uphill mountain to climb, a dissenting voice might have served to make their pain more real.

The fact that Munster made serious inroads into a 24-3 half time scoreline was appreciated by all who travelled but, in truth, Racing were already gearing themselves for a final showdown with Leinster at that stage.

The respectful cheering and sustained round of applause that followed the players through the departures area of Bordeaux’s Merignac airport, while appreciated, left many of the players feeling embarrassed. 

Once again, at the penultimate stage, they failed to deliver, and it hurt. Badly. You could see it in their eyes.

The contrast with their semi-final conquerors is interesting.

Sharing a hotel with the Racing 92 squad in Bordeaux in the 24 hours before that decider, I was taken by how much the presence of such household names in French rugby as Maxine Machenaud, Teddy Thomas, Yannick Nyanga, and Dimitri Szarzewski, not to mention a poster boy of the world game in All Black legend Dan Carter, barely elicited a response from any of the French public in the hotel.

Teddy Thomas
Teddy Thomas

Apart from some of the Munster supporters present, none of the locals appeared to have any appreciation of who these finely tuned athletes were. Then again it is no different closer to their home base in the western suburb of Paris.

About an hour after Racing had defeated Munster at their stunning new base at the U Arena, I spotted one of their players, strolling nonchalantly past in the midst of the departing crowd. 

What caught my attention first was the young woman directly in front of me, pulling a small wheeled Racing 92 kit bag.

Embellished with a team number and the initials WL, it was most definitely a player’s bag. 

It was then I noticed the large figure of Wenceslas Lauret, the 17-times capped French back row forward, carrying a young child in his arms like many a dutiful father I had seen around the sun-drenched French capital that weekend.

The difference here was that Lauret had just performed a storming role in a dominant Racing back row that defeated Munster. 

As we strolled passed a large crowd of Racing supporters congregated around a sponsor’s bar, Lauret went completely unnoticed.

The Racing team I encountered in that Bordeaux hotel looked totally relaxed, happy in their own company and confident they had what it would take to topple a former European champion in Munster.

There’s a steel to this Racing side that will have Leinster on edge

On the eve of the game, I shared with a few of the Racing squad the open area off the hotel bar watching Leinster’s comprehensive semi-final win over Scarlets. 

Apart from having to suffer a running commentary from one Munster supporter — there’s always one — who clearly knew more about the nuances of the game than any of the highly paid professionals in our midst, the Racing players left after about 30 minutes. 

It was clear they had seen enough of Leinster, who appeared in control from the outset and managed to make a good Scarlets side look distinctly ordinary, to know that even if they did account for Munster the following day, they were going to have their hands full in dealing with the multiple threats Leinster might pose in the final.

Leinster have been relentless in their march through Europe this season. Eight Champions Cup games played, eight won. To date, they have been too good for everything. 

Even then, the 10- point spread the bookies were offering at the start of the week for next Saturday’s decider seems generous.

There is a steel about this Racing side that will have Leinster on edge. They have more to offer that the stereotypical bludgeoning presence up front that most French sides offer, especially the Top 14 table toppers Montpellier that Leinster beat twice this season. 

There is a better balance to their game, an athleticism to their forwards and a genuine running threat out wide from a multi-talented back division.

The experience of losing to Clermont Auvergne at the semi-final stage in Lyon last season will frame the way Leinster approach this decider. 

There’s a steel to this Racing side that will have Leinster on edge

They must start well and mustn’t allow Racing boss the opening quarter of this contest like Clermont did last year and Racing did against Munster.

Both sides carry a heightened level of expectation into the match. Racing’s stems largely from within their own group and, having lost to an outstanding Saracens outfit in the final two years ago, will seek to translate the lessons of that day into a winning performance.

Leinster’s sustained excellence in Europe this season has served to fuel expectation levels far beyond the confines of their UCD training base into the wider community. 

That will be reflected in the vast numbers of blue shirted supporters who will make their way to Bilbao at the weekend.

With so many of the Irish squad that dealt admirably with similar expectation levels entering the Grand Slam decider against England in Twickenham last March, Leinster are in a better position to cope.

How Racing manage the loss of their outstanding scrum-half Maxime Machenaud and whether his absence will force a change of direction at half-back with Dan Carter starting ahead of Pat Lambie instead of being introduced as a quality impact replacement off the bench will be instructive.

That and their front row selection. Will they reintroduce the bulk of Ben Tameifuna at tight head to cope with Leinster’s scrummaging superiority and sacrifice some of the mobility and breakdown efficiency that proved so effective against Munster? Those calls will shape the thinking of Leinster’s coaching staff.

Watching and waiting in the wings, Munster are already focusing on their PRO14 semi-final against Leinster in the RDS the following weekend. 

There’s a steel to this Racing side that will have Leinster on edge

The narrow win over Edinburgh last Saturday onlyserved to highlight, again, the limitations in attack that has proved so costly at the business end of the season.

It doesn’t help matters that Munster make life so difficult for themselves by continually kicking possession away to the opposition. 

Edinburgh’s back three of Blair Kinghorn, Dougie Fife, and Duhan van der Merwe are hardly household names but created havoc on the counter-attack last weekend on the back of some very loose Munster kicks.

Regardless of what happens next Saturday at the San Mames Stadium you can be sure that the likes of Jordan Larmour, Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa, and James Lowe will be primed, ready and willing to punish any incontestable bombs that come their way in the RDS.

Right now, that’s not a priority for Leinster. 

With more time on their hands this week, Munster must use it wisely to have any hope of success against what might well be they newly crowned champions of Europe within a week of their coronation.

Trio graduate to Munster senior ranks

Three of Munster’s Academy talents have been confirmed for the senior ranks next season.

Calvin Nash, Liam O’Connor, and Academy Player of the Year Fineen Wycherley will progress through to senior while Joey Conway, Conor Fitzgerald, John Foley, Daniel Hurley, Vincent O’Brien, Rob O’Donovan and Jack Power have been released from the programme.

Year 2 hopeful Calvin Nash is a centre/Wing out of Young Munster), prop Liam O’Connor (Cork Con) will graduate from Year 3, while second row Wycherley (Young Munster) will progress from Year 2.

Continuing in Year 3 will be Gavin Coombes (Back row/Young Munster), Shane Daly (Centre/Cork Con), and Sean O’Connor (Second Row/Garryowen).

Continuing Year 2 will be Craig Casey (scrum half/Shannon), Liam Coombes (back three/Garryowen), Keynon Knox (prop/UL Bohs), James McCarthy (fullback/UL Bohs), Alex McHenry (centre/Con), Matt More (centre/Garryowen), Jack O’Sullivan (back row/UCC), Jack Stafford (scrumhalf/Shannon), Alan Tynan (outhalf/Young Munster).

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