Joe Rokocoko has no doubt but that the Leinster side he faces this weekend is a more complete threat than the Saracens outfit that deprived him of Champions Cup glory in the 2016 decider.
Sarries claimed a first European Cup with that 21-9 victory over Racing 92, Owen Farrell kicking all of the English side’s points as they ground out victory on a day of heavy rain and one when the French contenders lost Dan Carter midway through.
Win in Bilbao on Saturday and Leinster will emulate Saracen’s singular achievement that year in winning all nine games on the way to the title so the former All Black understands just how difficult it will be for the Parisian side to stop that happening.
“They bring a lot more. The hard thing is that despite all the video analysis you do during the week they can come up with a different move from their back pocket,” he said of the three-time Heineken Cup champions.
“They are such an intelligent team. They have great forwards and once they start getting momentum, it’s a long day for anyone who comes across them. Saracens were very good in defence and very technical. They went with their kicking strengths.
“Leinster have a lot more options, running options. When conditions come into it they can change their game up. They have got a lot of experience, international players, in their group. For us, it’s going to be tough. What more can you expect in a final?”
If Rokocoko has admired Leinster from afar, then he has a more intimate knowledge of the opposition’s club captain, given Isa Nacewa’s four seasons with the Blues sat smack in the middle of his own eight-year stint in Auckland.
“His nickname was Mr Fixit. Any injury there was he would come in and cover and play like he had always played there because he was such a talented player. He had a short run with Fjii when he was pretty much on the All Blacks’ radar.
“I heard on the grapevine that he couldn’t play because of those three minutes with Fiji. It’s like he has rebooted himself since the two years he spent back home in retirement. He has just grown to another level from what he was at the Blues.”
Rokocoko’s admiration for Leinster isn’t some ‘aw shucks’ butter-up job.
He looks back two years to that loss to Saracens and sees a Racing side that was just glad to have made the club’s first continental final.
By the time they had adjusted to the occasion it was over. This time feels different.
The current side is better equipped, he believes.
That they are still being underestimated by some and written off by others isn’t something that surprises him. Racing only scraped through the pool stages and found themselves undervalued in quarters ahead of the wins against Clermont Auvergne and Munster.
That they aren’t attracting much money before the final is probably down in no small way to the loss recently to injury of their talismanic scrum-half and place-kicker Maxime Machenaud. Former Brive nine Teddy Iribaren will step into those shoes.
“Both are quality players but we’re just gutted for Max personally. He has been outstanding, not only for us but the French team as well. He shows great leadership and aggression as well. You can always rely on him make tackles. Teddy brings a different game.
“He doesn’t have much on him but he has guts and determination and a good, strong pass. Teddy was performing really well earlier in season, putting pressure on Max to up his game. Both nines were playing well so we confident in what he can bring.
“They’ve been crucial for us.”
It would be remiss not to mention Donnacha Ryan.
Rokocoko jokes about how the Nenagh man always seems to be having little meetings and that he may actually love rugby too much but the respect for a man who walks the walk is obvious from his description of the lock.
One incident stands out this season.
It was Racing’s last pool game, away to Leicester Tigers, and with a handful of minutes on the clock it was Ryan who outran his own winger’s to contest a restart in a game they would win by three points.
“And he brings a little bit of Irish attitude to rucks and mauls.”
Don’t write Racing off just yet.
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