Tuesday 15 October 2019

Bernard Jackman: Gutsy win will give these Leinster youngsters confidence to turn four stars into five

12 May 2018; Dan Leavy and Luke McGrath of Leinster lift the cup after the European Rugby Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and Racing 92 at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao, Spain. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
12 May 2018; Dan Leavy and Luke McGrath of Leinster lift the cup after the European Rugby Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and Racing 92 at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao, Spain. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

Both sets of coaches had one member of their parties trying to become part of a very exclusive club in Bilbao. No one had ever won a Champions Cup as a player and coach, and Leo Cullen and Laurent Travers (Brive 1997) were looking to become the first to achieve the feat.

I was lucky to play alongside Leo for many years and he is a very shrewd tactician and excellent leader. One of his greatest strengths as a captain was that he never got flustered or excited, and that calmness and clarity of message was often invaluable in the build-up to big matches or in key moments within games.

He had a difficult time becoming head coach so soon after retiring as a player with lots of players that he played alongside, but he rebuilt the team and squad and has developed Irish coaches like Girvan Dempsey, John Fogarty and Emmet Farrell. However, his masterstroke was reaching out to Stuart Lancaster in 2016 and giving him the space to coach the attack and defence. Leo looks after the forwards and the media, player management and the more strategic decisions.

It's very rare for a team to go all the way unbeaten but Leinster emulated Saracens by becoming only the second club to achieve this. It takes an incredible culture to manage this level of consistency and it's down to the squad depth and the quality of the medical and conditioning teams to keep the best players on the pitch throughout a long season.

Johnny Sexton knows lots of the Racing players and coaches from his two seasons there and to win his fourth medal against his old club must have been extra special.

Traditionally, if rain fell on the day of a European final between an Irish and a French team you would feel favoured the Irish team but I don't think that it did with this Leinster side. Leinster play a high-tempo game and the slippery ball made it harder to recycle and build pressure. But it's testament to their superb skill-set that they were not affected and they played a type of rugby that Racing struggled to handle.

Leinster would have learnt a lot from the Racing win over Munster in the semi-final. In particular, it was crucial to deny Teddy Thomas and Virimi Vakatawa time and space, and also if you have one-out runners with no deception their power will knock you back in the tackle. That proved to be the case in the first 40 minutes as Racing, as they have tended to do throughout this season, came out of the blocks very quickly and their defence was aggressive and accurate.

They had the outstanding individual of the half too in their scrum-half Teddy Iribaren who, with starting out-half Pat Lambie having to go off after three minutes, took on much more responsibility to look after Racing's kicking game and he kept Leinster pinned in their own 22 for vast periods of the game.

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Both teams were heroic in defence. To keep sides with that attacking quality try-less is a job well done by both defence coaches. Isa Nacewa said Leinster were forced into a type and style of rugby that they weren't used to but they adapted and found a way to win. Nacewa will finish his wonderful Leinster career with a fourth European Cup and potentially a Guinness PRO14 trophy as well. He kicked two key penalties in the dying minutes when Sexton had received a knock and showed nerves of steel.

I wondered pre-match if Racing's fitness would stand up to 80 minutes of high-tempo rugby but to their credit they did so manfully. Even in the dying seconds they pressed for the penalty or drop goal opportunity to force the game into extra time but it wasn't to be.

Everyone in Leinster speaks of creating a legacy and this young squad have now tasted success in Europe and I see no reason why four stars can't become five.

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