Thursday 18 October 2018

Now there are four stars on the shirt as Leinster reign in Spain

DREAM TEAM: Leinster, champions of Europe. Inset below, Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton of Leinster with the cup. Photo: Mark Condren
DREAM TEAM: Leinster, champions of Europe. Inset below, Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton of Leinster with the cup. Photo: Mark Condren

Ryan Nugent in Bilbao

Irish rugby's golden year reached an astonishing climax as Leinster waited until the last possible moment in Bilbao to secure a breath-taking victory over Racing 92 to once again became European club champions.

With nine minutes left Leinster were three points behind.

It was Isa Nacewa who had to taken over kicking duties from Johnny Sexton who had to tie up the game at 12-12 to set up the frenetic finale

But a Sexton moment of wit and imagination created what turned out to be the winning score.

His impetuous dink under the most extreme pressure forced Racing into giving away the penalty smack-bang in front of the posts. Nacewa coolly slotted over the kick

Now it was time for Leinster to keep their discipline.

Racing had the ball with the clock striking 80 minutes and were desperately trying to fashion a drop goal. They worked their way into a decent position and it was agony for the Leinster faithful. But Tales missed and the celebrations could begin.

Sexton hoisted the European Champions Trophy and now there will be four stars on the Leinster shirt.

A game where all the scores came from penalty kicks was won with one moment of Sexton genius to force the Racing error.

"There wasn't a whole lot of rugby played," Tadhg Furlong admitted, and he was right.

But it was still absorbing

Racing wore berets as they took to the San Mames pitch and had started the brighter. Ultimately it was to be hats off for Leinster who have now been crowned champions of Europe on four occasions.

A penalty for a high tackle yielded first points for the French and they were never behind - until the 79th minute, when Nacewa struck.

Racing kicker Teddy Iribaren had been faultless from placed balls. Sexton, uncharacteristically had missed two before Nacewa took over.

Racing may rue the loss of their influential No10 Pat Lambie after just a couple of minutes through injury. And their talisman Dan Carter didn't start.

James Ryan was named the official man-of-the-match and he put in a complete display as his team mates struggled in the early exchanges.

It took 16 minutes for Leinster to wake from their torpor and what looked like a cast iron try was denied when Teddy Thomas strayed offside to intercept. Sexton nailed the penalty - his 12th successive effort in the knock-out stages of the competition.

There was a carnival atmosphere inside the stadium as Leinster fans made their voices heard.

This was tough, tough rugby, if sometimes a little scrappy - and there was little real cohesion from either the French or the Irish for much of the game.

Even Sexton appeared a little frustrated and forced the pace at every opportunity. He equalised with another penalty on 39 minutes.

But this game of few scores was utterly compelling.

Racing came out of the blocks quicker in the second half and scored first with another penalty before Sexton again had an opportunity to equalised.

He faltered with probably his worst kick of the season.

He made amends on 53 minutes. Nine points each. It was squeaky bum time - especially when Sexton missed another penalty by a whisker.

It was after that miss that Nacewa took over the kicking duties with aplomb to kick the final two scores for Leinster.

Only Toulouse can match Leinster's four titles in Europe - and Leinster are only the second team to win every game on their way to winning the title.

Tadhg Furlong said: "It feels amazing because it was a weird game of rugby. It was stop-start and neither team got into their flow but we are delighted to get the right result.

"I suppose we didn't use the ball the way we wanted to and the last penalty was the first time we took the lead. But we kept a cool head and luckily it came off for us.

"This is my first ever European trophy and as a younger player in the squad it is nice to have the pedigree we do in Europe. We have been working up to this over the last two years and it's amazing."

Johnny Sexton admitted that Leinster had done it the hard way.

"We couldn't get going in the game. Every time we got into their 22 the ball was killed.

"It was very greasy and they slowed it down at the ruck, but I can't believe we are champions again. I'm so happy for the young lads and the coaches."

"Two more wins in the league before we go to Australia will cap off the season. It will be a tough game against Munster who will come out hard at us, now we are European Champions."

Isa Nacewa paid tribute to Sexton: "Racing are world class. Johnny Sexton said all week that it would be a Test match. They have got the best defence in the tournament - but fortunately we have got the genius Johnny to marshall us around the pitch."

Leinster's Champions Cup winning side will return to a homecoming presentation in Donnybrook this afternoon at 4pm in Energia Park.

Sunday Independent

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