Four-star Leinster ready to kick on once again

Leinster - 15 Racing 92 - 12
Not the kind of game that will have endeared too many of the curious locals to rugby’s idiosyncratic charms but Leinster will always cherish the memories of Bilbao and this terrible beauty of a final.

The first Irish team to win a European final beyond the bounds of the UK and Ireland. Just the second side to claim this title on the back of nine unbeaten games. And, of course, that fourth star to be stitched on to their new adidas jerseys next season.

Cedric Heymans and Frederic Michalak had, until this, been the only two men to possess four European Cup medals. That number has now jumped 200% with Jonathan Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Cian Healy, and Devin Toner all making it a quartet.

But this is about more than just them. More than just Leinster.

The Champions Cup was borne out of a desire among the French and English clubs to fashion a tournament more suited to their needs, so the province’s first title in six years proves again that the Irish imprint is integral to this whole operation.

“Obsessed” was the word Leo Cullen used when describing Leinster’s relationship with the competition and the proof of that is apparent in a roll of honour that now shows them sitting at the summit alongside fellow four-timers Toulouse.

Of those two, only one looks poised to push on. The French side still possesses the sort of budget that would make Leinster swoon — €29m this season — but it is eight years now since they were the best side in Europe and seven since they made it as far as the last four.

The Challenge Cup was their lot on the continent this term.

“It seemed like Toulouse was that club that was going to kick on,” Cullen noted on Saturday night. 

“You have to keep chipping away, keep trying to get better. I suppose there’s a lesson in that too: don’t stop at four.”

Leinster’s head coach pondered aloud about how there was no Toulon or Racing 92 on the horizon back when Toulouse were strutting their stuff under Guy Noves and he spoke about the spiral downwards in fortunes suffered by the likes of Perpignan and Biarritz.

Both had thwarted Leinster’s European ambitions back in the early noughties when they were still playing catch-up on Munster and Toulouse. So, as with all winners, it is the haunting fear of losing that will drive Leinster on to win again. 

“You need to keep evolving all the time and keep getting better. Toulouse are a good lesson for us because if you sit still for too long, people will pass you by. We’ve had to wait so long to get to this stage again.

“When you look back over a long period and say ‘Leinster were in the final, blah, blah, blah... Six years we’ve had to wait to get back to this point. Hopefully, it won’t be another six years.”

There was an air of annoyance partnered by a conflicting sense of satisfaction that they had won this one on the back of such a difficult day with their own errors compounded by — and often caused by — Racing’s admirable intent.

How tough was it? Leinster’s two line breaks and 10 defenders beaten stood as their joint lowest of the campaign. So too their hundred rucks/maul won. They conceded more penalties than at any stage this season in Europe and their 77% return on the lineout was similarly below par.

And yet they still won.

Why? Well, their tackling, for a start. A 92% success rate was a good 8% up on their tournament average and that was critical against a side with the likes of Leone Nakarawa and Teddy Thomas lurking and awaiting opportunities.

“We just needed to stay with it,” said Cullen. “We thought the chances would come, or certainly I did. It was frustrating because they kept us in the back quite well; (they were) very aggressive around the ruck and it was just difficult to play.” 

It’s a sobering thought for those whose business it will be to relieve Leinster of their newly reclaimed title next season: if they can win a final while playing so poorly, then what might they do on a dry day against a side less equipped to negate their strengths?

There is a naked ambition about them that mirrors that of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team — not least because so many divide their duties between both camps. They have no issue with declaring an intent to leave Toulouse and the rest in their wake.

Cian Healy summed it up best when he spoke of wanting to add far more than four stars to the playing gear before hanging up his spurs and Nacewa mentioned how it felt good to be retiring this summer with the club in such good hands.

“The desire levels are there,” said Cullen. “We’re lucky we’ve got a great group of coaches putting a huge amount of work in to make sure it gets better. Some great leaders as well. How we go without Isa is going to be a big challenge.

“He is such a key figure, someone is going to have to step up now because he is an amazing individual. I couldn’t put into words how special he is in terms of his influence on the group, on the club. That’s something we need to figure out.” You get the sense they’ll be just fine.

LEINSTER: R Kearney; Larmour, G Ringrose, Henshaw, Nacewa; Sexton, L McGrath; Healy, Cronin, Furlong, Toner, Ryan, Fardy, Leavy, J Murphy.

Replacements: J Gibson-Park for L. McGrath (62); J McGrath for Healy (55); J Tracy for Cronin (62); A Porter for Furlong (66); J Conan for J Murphy (62).

RACING 92: Dupichot; Thomas, Vakatawa, Chavancy, Andreu; Lambie, Iribaren; Ben Arous, Chat, Gomes Sa, Ryan, Nakarawa, Lauret, Le Roux, Nyanga.

Replacements: R Tales for Lambie (3); J Rokocoko for Dupichot (29 to 37); V Kakovin for Ben Arous (55); O Avei for Chat (45); C Johnston for Gomes Sa (55); B Chouzenoux for Le Roux (69).

Referee: W Barnes (Eng)

60 Second Report

It mattered

Both sides made a mountain of errors. Racing were guilty of 10 of the 23 penalties, and two conceded in front of their posts in the last six minutes allowed replacement kicker Isa Nacewa to knock over the equalising and winning scores. Leinster led for just 92 seconds of normal time. It was enough.

Can’t ignore

Racing will rue the loss of out-half Pat Lambie to injury after just three minutes — and that after Dan Carter was ruled out with a hamstring injury before kick-off. They pushed Leinster all the way here with their third-choice 10 and hooker and a second-choice scrum-half after the injury earlier this month robbed them of the services of Maxime Machenaud.

Good day

A fourth European title for Leinster and a first in six years. A great day for the province and another feather in the cap for Irish rugby on the back of the Grand Slam Six Nations campaign earlier in the season — and with Leinster and Munster still vying for PRO14 honours as well.

Bad day

EPCR made a brave move in bringing this game to a non-traditional rugby country but the bid to showcase the game was hampered by the wet conditions and a tryless game that wasn’t one for the purists. The atmosphere in the stadium was muted for long, long periods. Not the carnival everyone wanted then but not the first final to be such a strain either.

Sideline smarts

Leinster found it so difficult to make gains against a Racing side that was blitzing them with a quick defence and some devastating work at the breakdown. It made it impossible to pull off those trademark wrap arounds but still wasn’t ultimately enough for the Top 14 side.

Best on show

James Ryan. Again. Simply sensational all the way through as so many of his other illustrious colleagues stuttered. That’s 21 games of professional rugby he has played now and he has yet to lose one. Teddy Iribaren, Racing’s scrum-half was exceptional, too.

Next up

No let up for Leinster who welcome Munster to the RDS on Saturday for a PRO14 semi-final. Racing 92 await the outcome of next weekend’s Top 14 play-offs before discovering who they face in the last four there.



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