This was the sort of day we feared might be beyond Irish clubs again.
Hands were wrung and obituaries written for the hopes of the provinces — and their Celtic cousins — in the realm of continental competition when the Heineken Cup and ERC lost out in the coup that produced the Champions Cup and EPRC.
And, with TV money flowing into the coffers of the English and French club games, our worst fears seemed to be confirmed two seasons ago when the quarter-finals of this changed, but still epic tournament, included no representation from the then PRO12.
It was merely a snapshot in time. A concerning one, no doubt about it, but the blowback since has been emphatic and Leinster can frank that by blazing to a fourth title here in the Basque Country and bridging the six barren years since their last.
It is, in rugby terms, a clash of styles, substance, and structures.
“What Racing have built in the last seven, eight, or nine years and what they have done in bringing in an expensive bunch of players… we have to do things slightly differently in Leinster where we produce guys from within, mainly,” said head coach Leo Cullen.
“We bring in a couple of key signings from overseas so it is a clash of styles in how you assemble a squad. We are under no illusions. It is a very formidable bunch of players that we will be up against tomorrow.
“It’s a great challenge that we face as a club moving forward: You see some of the French teams and the resources they have available and the calibre of players they have been signing over the last couple of years. It’s a great challenge for us.”
Racing have been working off a €24m budget this season. They play in a state-of-the-art U Arena that opened in October at a cost of €360m and they bring to Bilbao a multi-talented squad of players aiming to do a domestic and European double.
They scraped through their pool having lost the opening two fixtures but there is a sense of a rising tide emanating from Paris given they sacked Clermont Auvergne’s fearsome fortress and swept past Munster in Bordeaux.
“Racing are very powerful,” said Cullen. “A lot of very, very powerful players. Very, very dangerous broken-field runners. We know (Leone) Nakawara from his time with Glasgow in the PRO12 and his ability to suck in defenders and get the ball away through the line.
“He is obviously a clear threat. (Virimi) Vakatawa as well. He would have played our Ireland guys with France. Just the power Racing have in their squad, the depth of experience they have as well. When you have Dan Carter on your bench that says it all.”
It’s not by accident that we focus so much on Racing here.
For weeks now, there has been a sense of destiny about this Leinster outfit and one that has relegated even a side of Racing’s capabilities to a minor role in the decider’s narrative. That is a dangerous backdrop and one of which Cullen and company will be mindful.
Their thousands of supporters will converge on this stunning city with a confidence borne of their side’s unbeaten progress through this campaign. They have beaten a string of excellent sides and done it by adapting their game as the opposition and occasion demands.
But they are not invincible. Will Luke McGrath’s ankle last the 80 minutes? Can Jordan Larmour continue to confound his years and inexperience on these big stages? Will their light workload of late be a blessing or a curse?
All we can say for sure is that they carry the air of a group who have ticked every box possible. There is a relaxed vibe about this Leinster operation and it has been evident in their dealings with the media through the knockout stages of this competition.
Jonathan Sexton was smiling and joking at yesterday’s pre-match press conference, as he was before they blew Scarlets away in Dublin. Leo Cullen, too, has been a picture of calm and contentment even as the stakes have risen.
This is his first final as head coach.
It is only two years ago that this job was viewed by many as a case of’ too much too soon’ for him but he has built a coaching staff and squad that look capable of completing the job today and returning for seconds and more in the years to come.
Nobody in Leinster has voiced such thoughts publicly but there is a quantity of sufficient quality in their ranks to look back to those three Heineken Cups in four years as a template for the current generation and not some manner of weight on their shoulders.
And they return to this elevated stage with half-a-dozen starters who have done the needful before on the day of a European Cup final. Not to mention a head coach who captained the side to all three of those victories. That has to be of help.
“It is about trying to keep it as normal as possible and keep doing the things that got us to this stage really,” said Cullen.
“That’s what experience tells you. We don’t need to do things that we haven’t done so far. It seems like a long time ago, 2012.
“There are definitely things that I remember from the preparation leading into those games and that we have tried to look at this week, but the main thing is to try and keep it as normal as possible, making sure we’re familiar with the ground etc. All of those bits.
“We didn’t have a game last week when we were able to manage the group and keep people as fresh as possible going into this game so we are physically and mentally ready for the challenge the players are going to face. It’s been tough to watch these semis and finals and not be in them so we have worked hard to get to this point and hopefully the players will execute it on the day.”
Everything we have seen lately suggests they will.
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