Stars in their eyes: Leinster’s quest for history

Simon Lewis profiles the men chasing glory — and a record-equalling fourth European title - in Spain this evening 

15 Rob Kearney

If Kearney has proved nothing else this season it is that you can never write the veteran full-back off. Continues to defy the critics who would prefer what they perceive as more dynamic talents in both the Leinster and Ireland back three but as he makes his 196th Leinster appearance, there really is no substitute for his experience, aerial prowess and leadership.

14 Jordan Larmour

Today’s start on the right wing is only a third in six Champions Cup games this season. Still only 20, Larmour only made his professional competitive debut on September 2 but has earned three Test caps for Ireland and has a Grand Slam-winning campaign under his belt already. A brilliant solo, counter-attacking try at Munster on December 26 announced Larmour’s talents to a wider audience and like many of the young guns he has not been fazed by any challenge in his rookie year.

13 Garry Ringrose

A grizzled veteran compared to Larmour but Ringrose should still be classed in the prodigy category. Still only 23, the outside centre with ability to turn defenders inside out has endured an injury-hit season but answered Ireland’s call to return for the final two games of the Six Nations and got the Grand Slam party underway with an excellent, opportunistic try against England at Twickenham. A genuine gamebreaker with X-factor and a willing midfield tackler.

12 Robbie Henshaw

Set to play his first final as a Leinster player since his move from Connacht following the westerner’s 2016 PRO12 triumph, this will be the inside centre’s second game for Leinster since dislocating his shoulder whilst scoring a try in Ireland’s Six Nations win over Italy. Henshaw’s interplay with his provincial and Test fly-half Johnny Sexton is a crucial component in both side’s success while he also enjoys an understanding with Ringrose on his outside shoulder that will pose Racing 92 serious problems.

11 Isa Nacewa

The old man of the side, the 35-year-old Aucklander leads Leinster from the left wing in his final European game for the province in his 183rd appearance, Nacewa set to retire at the end of this season. Was in all three matchday squads in Leinster’s three Champions Cup final successes to date and is still a key leadership figure and a dangerous attacking threat, his charge down the left wing against Saracens, continuing James Lowe’s break, setting the tone for the significant quarter-final victory over the back-to-back defending champions. Two tries on the road to Bilbao and a reliable back-up goal kicker to Johnny Sexton with, nine successful kicks out of 10 in Europe this season.

10 Johnny Sexton

Ireland’s playmaker general and the star around which Leinster’s success orbits, the fly-half played for Racing between 2013 and 2015 and his goalkicking success in Europe this season has played a meaningful part in helping his side reach a fourth final in this competition, converting 21 of 24 attempts for an 88 per cent success rate. Sexton, chasing a fourth winner’s medal today, has been faultless off the tee during the knockout-stage wins over Saracens and Scarlets, kicking 11 from 11, seven conversions and four penalties and his four tries in six Champions Cup games this season have been crucial.

9 Luke McGrath

First capped by Joe Schmidt last November, the scrum-half returns from the ankle injury which denied him the chance to play a part in Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign, where he would have challenged Kieran Marmion for the back-up role to Conor Murray. Increasingly influential with Leinster, McGrath leads his side try assists in the Champions Cup this season with six, for defenders beaten, 15, in his seven appearances. Seems to have benefitted from his rivalry with New Zealand-born Jamison Gibson-Park, whom he starts ahead of at the San Mames today.

1 Cian Healy

Ireland’s front-row renaissance man, the loosehead has dropped some weight and regained his swagger as well as the number one jersey for club and country ahead of Jack McGrath and today makes a fourth Champions Cup final appearance. Always an aggressive scrummager, Healy also brings a powerhouse presence in open play and has three tries in Europe this season.

2 Sean Cronin

Another front-rower marking his return to form in impressive fashion, the hooker will win his 50th European cap in Bilbao today. Omitted from Ireland’s November squad for the Guinness Series of Tests, Cronin rediscovered his mojo to reclaim his place in the Test set-up and is arguably the form hooker in Ireland. His lineout throwing is solid and his presence in the loose brings power and speed to his carrying. Has two tries in Europe this season.

3 Tadhg Furlong

The world’s best tighthead prop faces a battle royale in the scrum today against Eddy Ben Arous but Furlong continues to improve. Still only 25 and relatively young for a frontline tighthead, the farmer from New Ross has an impressive resumé, crowned with a starting role in all three Tests in the British & Irish Lions’ drawn series with the All Blacks in New Zealand last summer. An important carrier, Furlong’s strength in open play is matched by excellent scrummaging technique.

4 Devin Toner

The most capped member of the Leinster squad with 215 appearances for his province, second row Toner is a three-time European winner, all of his contributions in deciders against Leicester Tigers in 2009, Northampton Saints in 2011 and Ulster in 2012 coming from the bench for a total of 24 minutes. Toner will today play a very different role for his team as he goes head to head with Racing’s lineout leader and former Test team-mate Donnacha Ryan, as well as offering a leadership role for rookie fellow lock James Ryan.

5 James Ryan

It continues to fascinate that 21-year-old Ryan is yet to experience defeat as a professional rugby player and today’s European final appearance will represent another highpoint in a remarkable debut season. Just 13 games for his province but capped by Ireland last summer before his Leinster debut at the start of this season, Ryan appears to the manor born but possesses an industrial work ethic, Leinster’s go-to carrier in Europe this season with 80 carries and 62 tackles made, none of them missed.

6 Scott Fardy

The former Brumbies and Australia flanker, signed last summer, is proving every bit as influential a foreign signing as Leinster’s previous Southern Hemisphere imports Brad Thorn and Rocky Elsom, and a starring role in the victory over Racing 92 today would confirm the theory. Has scored three tries in Europe this season but brings plenty of grizzle to the Leinster pack and lineout and has quickly become an important leader for the Blues.

7 Dan Leavy

Yet another star in the making off the Leinster academy production line, Leavy’s rise to prominence has more than softened the blow delivered by Sean O’Brien’s ongoing injury issues. Today marks the flanker’s 52nd appearance in blue and two outstanding performances in the knockout stages, including a man of the match, try-scoring display in the victory over Saracens at Aviva Stadium have continued to showcase Leavy’s excellent big-game temperament after an excellent debut campaign in the Six Nations earned him a well-deserved piece of the Grand Slam glory.

8 Jordi Murphy

Playing out the last days of his Leinster career before a summer move north to Ulster. Murphy’s good form at No.8 has been critical for Leinster in filling vacuum created by Jamie Heaslip’s back injury and eventual early retirement. Things may have turned out differently for Murphy had his try-scoring turn in Ireland’s historic first win over New Zealand not been cut short by a serious, season-ending knee in November 2016 but those are the breaks and he has rebounded in style this season.

Bench

A strong set of replacements featuring seven players with Ireland caps, the one non-cap is scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, who like Fardy got the nod over fellow Kiwi James Lowe as the two non-EU qualified players eligible under tournament rules. Coming off a strong semi-final appearance against Scarlets, Gibson-Park is joined on the bench by fly-half Joey Carbery and outside back Rory O’Loughlin. The forwards cover is boosted by the return from injury of Rhys Ruddock, who can operate in both the second and back rows, while Jack Conan is Leinster’s top tackler in Europe this season with 81, only two missed. Props Jack McGrath and Andrew Porter both featured in Ireland’s Grand Slam success while hooker James Tracy was capped in November.

Coaching

Head Coach Leo Cullen raised the Heineken Cup three times as Leinster’s winning captain and the former lock bids to become the first man to win the competition as both player and coach. Cullen’s working relationship with senior coach Stuart Lancaster has been the launchpad for Leinster’s upturn in fortunes these past two seasons and a further signs of the then rookie head coach’s willingness to embrace the appointment of an older, Test-hardened coaching presence in the former England boss. It has proved a productive combination.


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