Donnacha Ryan was not surprised to see three-time winners Saracens suffocate the will out of Leinster in Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final to become the first visiting side to win a knockout game in Dublin since Munster in 2006.
“I wasn’t at all surprised,” Ryan — a European Cup winner with Munster in 2008 and a losing finalist with Racing 92 in 2018 — said ahead of the Top 14 side’s semi-final against the defending champions in Paris this afternoon.
“We’ve played against Saracens twice already this season. They’re a very organised, well coached team. They’ve a fantastic culture. They really made Leinster look uncomfortable and were full value for their win. The stadium wasn’t full, but they looked like they were creating their own atmosphere on the pitch and they were able to impose their gameplan on Leinster.”
The 47-cap Ireland lock was on the bench for Racing’s own quarter-final victory at Clermont last weekend, but moves into the starting line-up this week in place of Bernard Le Roux, where he is the senior partner in an experienced second row with former All Black Dominic Bird.
French international Teddy Thomas is the only other change to the starting fifteen from last weekend, coming in for the injured Louis Dupichot, as head coach Laurent Travers sticks to the tried and trusted.
Despite enjoying home advantage against Saracens, Ryan predicted another tough examination from the three-time winners at La Defense Arena.
“If you look back at the quarter-final last weekend, their workrate around the rucks was incredible. They made sure Leinster had to commit more bodies to the breakdown and slowed the ball, and didn’t allow them to get any width on it.
“They’ve been champions several times already so they’re well able to manage the expectations of the club, and obviously they have a lot of ambition as well. I don’t think this occasion will be any different for them. They’ll approach it the same way they approach any other game.”
This isn’t any other game, however, for Racing. A 2016 Top 14 win is the only title the French side has to show for billionaire owner Jacky Lorenzetti’s 14 years of investment in the club that started when they were languishing in the ProD2.
They were overawed and overwhelmed by their opponents this weekend in the Champions Cup final in Lyon the same year, but were much closer and justifiably disappointed to lose a tight encounter with Leinster in Bilbao in 2018.
There’s a palpable sense that the players realise some silverware is long overdue - that earning the right to embroider a first European star on their jersey would mean everything. Flanker Wenceslas Lauret, who can list three European final defeats on his CV, told Midi Olympique on Monday that he’s ‘tired of dreaming’.
“This cup, I covet it, I’ve got close — but I never lifted it. I hope this season is finally the right one,” he said.
Old soldier Ryan has been there, done that, worn the winners’ medal. But he understands the desperate ambition of his team-mates.
“When I first came to the club, it was one of the first things I saw. At the gym were two massive posters - the Top 14 trophy and the Champions Cup trophy.
“The ambition of the club is very high and we’re reminded of that every day. The guys know what’s expected of us and the younger guys are beginning to understand and have that ambition to win every game they play and have that mentality.
“That’s probably what’s most exciting for me. We put a massive amount of pressure on ourselves to perform. We put a lot of emphasis on the training we do. Building squad depth is a huge thing — and something we learned from the last final.”
But Ryan knows building a legacy is a long task that demands getting the small things right first - that overnight success takes years to achieve. Racing may be in the mix for three titles between now and next June, but he refuses to look beyond today’s match. One thing he is happy to predict is a high-pace game at Racing’s ‘nightclub’ indoor stadium.
“I really like playing there,” he said.
“It is very fast. It’s a totally different experience. “The synthetic pitch allows you to see Teddy Thomas, Juan Imhoff, and Simon Zebo running at full tilt in proper sprinting conditions. Running on the synthetic like that allows them to do it. Obviously I’m usually miles behind at that stage!”
RACING 92 Zebo; Thomas, Vakatawa, Klemenczak, Imhoff; Russell, Iribaren (cap); Sanconnie, Claassen, Lauret; Ryan, Bird; Colombe-Reazel, Chat, Ben Arous.
Replacements: Baubigny, Kolingar, Oz, Palu, Chouzenoux, Machenaud, Gibert, Trinh-Duc.
SARACENS: Daly; Lewington, Taylor, Barritt (cap), Maitland; Goode, Wigglesworth; Wray, B Vunipola, Rhodes; Swinson, Itoje; Koch, George, Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: Woolstencroft, Barrington, Clarey, Hunter-Hill, Clark, Davies, Manu Vunipola, Morris