Leinster’s ruthless edge can complete greenwash in Champions Cup final
Boasting 18 players involved in Ireland’s grand slam triumph, the region will look to spoil Dan Carter’s European swansong for Racing 92 in Bilbao
The Champions Cup final has yet to be played but Leinster can already claim to be Europe’s best, having answered every question thrown at them by the pick of the domestic leagues. The Irish region’s route to Saturday’s showpiece in Bilbao took in a home-and-away double over the Premiership champions, Exeter, and the club that have finished as leaders of the Top 14, Montpellier, before the delivery of knockout blows to the holders, Saracens, and the winners of last season’s Pro12, the Scarlets.
Their other victims, home and away, were Glasgow who, like Leinster, finished the regular season top of their Pro14 conference. They have become the second team after Saracens to reach the final with a 100% record, despite being in a pool that contained four teams who were to look down on the rest in their respective leagues at the end of the season and they travel to northern Spain looking to emulate Toulouse’s feat of winning the competition for the fourth time.
Standing in their way are Racing 92, beaten finalists in 2016, who qualified for the quarter-finals after finishing second in their group having lost to Munster and Castres. It will be the final appearance in Europe for Dan Carter before the former New Zealand fly-half plays out his career in Japan, but the knee injury to Maxime Machenaud, the archetypal French scrum-half schemer as well as goal-kicker, will lower their heartbeat.
Leinster are the favourites but a cup final is a one-off occasion in which form has on many an occasion proved an unreliable barometer. They are almost an international side: 18 of their players were involved in Ireland’s grand slam-winning Six Nations campaign this year and Leinster are supplemented by shrewd overseas signings in Isa Nacewa, in his final month before retiring, and Scott Fardy.
Nearly half Racing’s squad is not French, with Carter, Leone Nakarawa, Juan Imhoff, Patrick Lambie and Donnacha Ryan highlighting their global reach, but they are less dependent on foreign aid than their rivals: Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Henry Chavancy, Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat, Cedate Gomes Sa, Bernard Le Roux and Wenceslas Lauret have all played for France in the last year, along with Machenaud, who ruptured knee ligaments 10 minutes after coming on as a replacement in Bordeaux last Sunday.
Racing run on emotion more than Leinster, who have so refined the art of keeping possession that they starved the counterattacking Scarlets in last month’s one-sided semi-final.
A team that had created 154 rucks at Exeter and recycled the ball every time lost one out of 126 against the Welsh region and enjoyed 59% possession, showing the kind of ruthlessness that had taken Saracens to Europe’s summit in the previous two years.
Racing will pose a different threat, not least in the set pieces, where their scrum is anchored by the 23st prop Ben Tameifuna. If the Scarlets lacked ball carriers, looking to attack quickly from turnovers, the 2016 French champions have more than a few and it was their ability to get behind the lines that took them to victory at Clermont Auvergne in the quarter-finals, supplemented by the continuity Carter brought from the bench. They scored early and often against Munster in the semi-final, just holding on to what they had banked, but if fitness is the determining factor, Leinster will prevail.
As Carter enters his final few weeks with Racing, he reflects on a reason he feels New Zealand are at the top of the world rankings while France are among the also-rans. “What jumps out at me is that players here are big and strong but they need to spend more time passing the ball. Kids in New Zealand grow up passing the ball, which is why we have natural talent. And it does not stop there: Test players will work on their skills at the end of training sessions. That does not happen so much in France, where players spend more time in the gym.”
Leinster are more like a New Zealand side, comfortable with handling and passing, and led by Johnny Sexton, who will enjoy one final duel with Carter, and Garry Ringrose. They are difficult to knock out of their stride: Saracens managed it for a period in the quarter-final in Dublin before succumbing and they were relentless against the Scarlets.
“At the business end of the season it can become hard to stay your course,” says Gordon D’Arcy, the former Leinster centre. “Leinster don’t need to try to do something different and they know it.”
The final is breaking new ground by being played in Spain, preceded by the Challenge Cup final between Cardiff Blues and Gloucester on Friday evening. Bilbao has not proved a popular choice with supporters, who have baulked at packages costing more than £600, but it may be appropriate for Leinster in their season of inquisitions.