Leinster forced to dig deep to see off teak-tough Racing 92 to secure fourth European crown
LEINSTER 15 RACING 92 12
For the fourth time, Leinster are European champions and they did it the hard way in Bilbao.
Up against a relentless Racing 92 effort that made life incredibly difficult for them for 80-plus minutes, they never led until Isa Nacewa delivered a penalty with 90 seconds remaining to secure the trophy.
It is a fitting way for a glorious European career to end and he returns to New Zealand a four-time winner, as do Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy who join Cedric Heymans and Freddie Michalak as the only players to win the tournament four times.
It was an absorbing game in difficult conditions and the fluency we’ve seen all season from Leinster disappeared.
Instead, this was about grit and determination and nobody summed them up more than James Ryan who claimed the man of the match award thanks to a relentless display.
Racing, and in particular their superb scrum-half Teddy Iribaren, could count themselves unlucky but despite working themselves into a winning position they ran out of legs in the end. Still, they played until the death and Remi Tales had a last gasp drop-goal chance to win it but couldn’t deliver.
That the French out-half was even playing told its own story.
Having lost replacement out-half Dan Carter before the game, Racing suffered a huge blow when Springbok Pat Lambie turned his ankle after breaking the Leinster line and from not being in the match-day squad suddenly France international Tales was playing out-half after two minutes.
His side weren’t deterred and went in front almost immediately as Iribaren punished Garry Ringrose’s high tackle with a confidence building penalty.
After marching through to the final in style, the Irish province were finding Racing a tough opponent with Iribaren controlling the match tactically and Donnacha Ryan leading an excellent defensive lineout that constantly pressurised the Sean Cronin’s throw.
A penalty against Bernard Le Roux for a needless high shot on Johnny Sexton gave them an opportunity to attack.
Isa Nacewa thought he had broken through after a neat Sexton wraparound on Scott Fardy, only for Teddy Thomas to reel him in and, while the winger later intercepted a Fardy pass, referee Wayne Barnes was playing advantage and the Ireland out-half was able to level from the tee.
Another attacking platform went begging as Dan Leavy was punished for closing the gap in an attacking lineout and instead Iribaren pinned Leinster back and when Scott Fardy pulled down a Racing maul the scrum-half nailed the penalty.
With Racing making every possession a contest, Leinster were struggling in attack and a Fardy neck-roll on Camille Chat again let the French side off the hook.
Leinster went to the air to bring themselves into the game, but they spurned another visit to the ’22 when Sexton turned down point to tap a penalty but Dan Leavy was forced into holding on by a brilliant Chat poach.
A high tackle by Tales on Robbie Henshaw offered Leinster one last opportunity before half-time and a deliberate knock-on by Leone Nakarawa handed Sexton the chance to level before half-time.
The Fijian was lucky to escape a yellow card, but the out-half made no mistake to send the teams into the dressing-rooms at 6-6.
After absorbing so much pressure, Racing needed to strike first after the break and a penalty concession by Dan Leavy handed them the field position to attack and, when the Leinster line came up too quickly Iribaren nudged the Parisians in front again.
Sexton missed a long-distance chance to level almost instantly as Cedate Gomes Sa didn’t retreat and, when Barnes awarded the penalty, Eddy Ben Arous kicked the ball away and the English referee brought the penalty into the Racing half but it proved too far for the No 10.
He got a second bite at the cherry from closer in when Ole Avei tackled Fardy without the ball and this time he restored parity.
James Ryan got up ahead of Donnacha to pick off a key lineout and Sexton again went for a long-ranger after Wenceslas Lauret didn’t roll away but the kick drifted just wide.
As the clock ticked past the hour-mark and the stakes racheted up, every mistake was amplified and a high tackle from Leavy handed Iribaren a chance from just inside the Leinster half, but like Sexton his kick drifted wide.
The tension levels were high and Racing went through a lengthy series of phases in the Leinster ’22 only to hesitate and allow James Ryan and Leavy pounce and Gibson-Park cleared his lines.
The Blues broke out, but another high tackle allowed Tales pin them back in their own half and when Andrew Porter was penalised for hauling down the maul Iribaren delivered a superb kick.
A well-worked move up the right released Fardy as Leinster sought to hit back and, when Henry Chavancy crept up offside, Isa Nacewa had a chance to level as he took over the kicking from Sexton.
The captain made no mistake to level matters once again and a harsh penalty against Virimi Vakatawa allowed Sexton put his side in position.
Nakarawa picked off James Tracy’s throw, but Jack Conan hunted Thomas into touch and this time they went to Leavy at two.
Sexton sent Garry Ringrose on a hard line up the middle, Devin Toner brilliantly held a pass meant for Tracy and Racing blinked, coming up too quickly and Nacewa put his side in front for the first time with 90 seconds remaining.
Racing patiently worked their way into position, carrying through phases and forcing the Leinster defence back but when they chose to go for the levelling drop Tales never convinced – the ball started low and veered left.
Leinster were already celebrating before it landed. They’d won it the hard way.
LEINSTER - R Kearney; J Lamour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 62); C Healy (J McGrath 55), S Cronin (J Tracy 62), T Furlong (A Porter 66); D Toner, J Ryan; S Fardy, D Leavy, J Murphy (J Conan 62).
RACING 92 - L Dupichot (J Rokocoko 30-38 HIA); T Thomas, V Vakatawa, H Chavancy, M Andreu; P Lambie, T Iribaren; E Ben Arous (V Kakovin 55), C Chat (O Avei 45-55 HIA, 59), C Gomes Sa (C Johnston 55); D Ryan, L Nakarawa; W Lauret, B Le Roux (B Chouzenoux 70), Y Nyanga (capt).
Ref - W Barnes (England)