Who will be basking in glory in Bilbao?

Ollie Campbell (Old Belvedere RFC/Leinster and Irish Triple Crown hero, British and Irish Lion in 1983)
I have to say that it would be Leinster; I think it is a greatly poised final, it’s probably fair to say it is between the two best teams and the two best form teams which is equally important.

 I have to say that it would be Leinster; I think it is a greatly poised final, it’s probably fair to say it is between the two best teams and the two best form teams which is equally important.

For me, however, Leinster look the complete team, particularly in the way they played in the quarter and semi finals; they are just well drilled, they’re disciplined, they have an imaginative attack, a very solid defence. 

The way they played against Llanelli and Saracens in the last two games I figure a team like the All Blacks would have been happy with performances like that.

They really have become quite a machine and a real Rolls Royce of a team, but having said that I wouldn’t underestimate Racing at all, they’re formidable opposition. They have won 16 of 19 games since December. 

They have conceded the least number of tries in the Top 14, they have the best defensive line out and any team with the potential offered when Dan Carter is there must be treated with a huge respect. They have X-factor players around as well, so then you add to the mix the presence of Donnacha Ryan who brings a Munster ethic to the whole equation then you have a better balance to this game.

It might come down to a few things from an individual; Johnny Sexton is a key figure. He is so important to Leinster as he has been for Ireland in the last few months.

Shane Williams (former Wales and Ospreys wing and three-time British & Irish Lion)

It’s entirely natural the bookies and most pundits are tipping Leinster. They’re the most complete team in European rugby and have shown that consistently in the Guinness PRO14 and in the Champions Cup this season. 

I don’t expect the final to be a high-scoring clash and that will play into the Irish side’s hands with the game management of Johnny Sexton likely to be crucial. 

That said, I think Racing have the ability to just edge the game for what would be a fitting finale to Dan Carter’s time at the club.

I think the fact the final will be played in Spain might play into Racing’s hands with the heat and the French side have some seriously dangerous players who can come up with a moment of magic out of nothing. 

Teddy Thomas is one of those players. Don’t bet against him scoring the winning try. Thomas has been one of the best wingers in world rugby this season for me. 

Despite his off-field antics with France in Edinburgh during the Six Nations he has been a real livewire. That was summed up for me in the semi-final with Munster when with a hat-trick begging to be scored, he popped the ball up to his team-mate rather than ground it himself! Mad stuff!

Martyn Williams (former Wales captain, three-time British & Irish Lion)

 

I have to go with Leinster.

I know it’s not the most exciting of choices, but they’re going to be so tough to beat. You can’t completely write off Racing because of the talent they have in their squad, but I think Maxime Machenaud is such a big loss for them. 

Leinster are such a well-drilled machine at the moment and I think they’ll take advantage of Machenaud’s absence. If you look at the odds, the bookmakers are giving Racing an 11-point head start and they’re not often wrong, are they? 

My head and heart says Leinster but I think it’s going to be a great European final. 

Part of the reason I say that is Johnny Sexton. He is utterly brilliant, but one man I want to single out is his Leinster team-mate Isa Nacewa. For him to be doing what he is at 35 is seriously impressive. 

Whenever his team needs him to step up, Nacewa always does what’s needed. He’s played full-back, wing and centre this season and done it all so easily and that’s the sign of a top player. 

Then you add in his leadership as captain too. I played with Isa for the Barbarians in 2011 and I count myself lucky to have done that.

I’m confident he’ll end this season with European silverware.

Niall Ronan (former Ireland, Leinster & Munster flanker)

I think Leinster are rightly the favourites. Their form is very good in both domestic and European competitions. They have strength in depth in every position and have lots of international quality on top of that. I’d say they’re confident going into the game and I think they’re going to win it.

When you look at what happened Munster against Racing 92 you’d have to say the French side have a chance, especially if they can reproduce the first-half performance. 

But then again, if Munster were to play that game again ten times there is no way that they would concede those three early tries again. 

It was a bit of a freak first-half performance from Racing, and I thought Munster had a great chance of getting to the final after all the recent tough semi-finals they had of late. But Racing have a lot of quality and have plenty top players with plenty of international caps between them. Hopefully it will be a good competitive game.

The big advantage for Leinster is that they have their number one kicker Johnny Sexton fit, while Racing 92 have had to plan without Maxime Machenaud. The big thing in a final is that you want your place kicker to be in form. Both Machenaud and Sexton will kick 15 points on average in any game.

You’d have to ask if Racing’s second choice kicker can do that? We’ll find out in Blibao though. Not having Machenaud there definitely puts this in Leinster’s favour.

Bernard Jackman (former Ireland hooker, Heineken Cup winner with Leinster and Dragons head coach)

I think Leinster will have a little bit too much for Racing on the big stage. Racing are a very powerful team, but one of their problems is they don’t play for 80 minutes. 

To win a final you have to do that and if Racing only play in fits and starts, then I don’t think they’ll have enough to win. Leinster’s win over the Scarlets was the performance of the competition. 

They are the complete team and when I look through their side, no matter how hard I try, I can’t find any weaknesses. That’s the biggest compliment I can give them because it’s not like their entire outfit is made up of experienced players.

There are young guys in there, but they look so comfortable at the highest level. Dan Leavy against the Scarlets is a good example of that. Virimi Vakatawa remains a big danger to Leinster though. 

This guy has been sensational all tournament. As an opposition coach he is one of the only players you devise a game plan around trying to stop. 

That’s all very well, but at times he is unstoppable and Leinster will have to keep a close eye on him.

You’ve seen for France how dangerous he is and if Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas get going, there certainly won’t be a lack of entertainment in Bilbao!

I can’t wait for the game.

Mike Ruddock (Head Coach to Lansdowne, UBL Champions and Bateman Cup winners)

 

There is absolutely no doubt about it, but that Leinster have been the best team in the competition so far this year. They’re unbeaten and have brought a focus and intensity to their play that other teams have been unable to match so far.

It has been unique, it’s been 80 minutes full on with skills and pace and a ruthless defensive attitude when required. Nobody else has been able to match that over the 80 minutes.

I think a lot of the credit for that has to be given to Leo Cullen. As a former player, he has brought the experience he had on the pitch to help prepare this squad for all of the intense challenges they have had to face this season.

He has been a revelation. I’m pleased that I gave Leo his first contract; he had the pedigree but he was also a leader right through from Blackrock College. 

It was no surprise that a guy who carried himself that way should go on to captain Leicester Tigers in England; being named skipper of that club as an “outsider” was a huge honour and he used his time over there wisely, so that his return to Leinster was a huge boost for the province.

As a player he didn’t get rattled, he was always composed, always seemed to know instinctively what to do next and that has come across loud and clear in his coaching. 

Basically, from his time in Leicester and Leinster as a player, he developed the mindset of a champion and that has come through in his coaching. 

Looking beyond the team to individuals who have made the biggest impact in this year’s competition, it’s difficult for me because I haven’t seen a huge amount of the games in detail because our Lansdowne games often clashed. 

However, I have seen enough of Johnny Sexton to suggest he is right up there. He has to be given the way he played. Obviously the forwards have played a key role in getting Leinster to where they are, but every team requires somebody to direct you home and Johnny is getting better and better, if that is possible and he will be hugely influential.



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