Leinster start race for All-Ireland final
Dream final in Bilbao beckons as Munster look to heroic displays of old to inspire victory
Bilbao beckons. An unforgettable season for Irish rugby could yet feature a dream final between Leinster and Munster if they can get the job done this weekend.
Today, Leo Cullen's men host Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium (3.30), before Munster face Racing 92 in Bordeaux tomorrow (3.15).
Although it is not sold out, more than 48,000 tickets have been sold for the Dublin venue while an estimated travelling support of around 8,000 has made the journey to southern France to roar on Johann van Graan's men at the Stade Chaban Delmas.
Last season, both teams came up short at this stage with Munster losing to Saracens and Leinster going down to Clermont Auvergne, but on the back of Ireland's Grand Slam there is renewed belief that an Irish side can reach the final for the first time since 2012 when Leinster beat Ulster.
The bookies are offering 8/5 on a second all-Irish final and a first between the two traditional rivals who have won five European Champions Cups between them.
Leinster are hot favourites to beat the Welsh side who will have no fear of coming Dublin after winning a PRO12 semi-final and final in the city last season, but Isa Nacewa is confident that his side have improved.
And, having lost at this stage last season, the experienced winger is determined to go one better.
"Twelve months on from a painful loss in Lyon, you've got to learn some hard truths," Nacewa said.
"A lot of guys have kicked on to a Grand Slam success and taken learnings from that, so you can go a long way in 12 months but it still comes down to 80 minutes tomorrow."
Nacewa hands the captaincy to Johnny Sexton for the game after suffering an illness earlier this week.
The 35-year-old has recovered in time to take his place on the wing, with Robbie Henshaw back in the midfield and Jamison Gibson-Park in for the injured Luke McGrath at scrum-half.
The Kiwi's inclusion means, as expected, James Lowe misses out because of the tournament rules on non-European players limit Leinster to two from Lowe, Gibson-Park and Scott Fardy who resumes his role at blindside.
Cullen confirmed that Seán O'Brien underwent shoulder surgery yesterday, but Jack Conan is fit enough to take his place on the bench.
Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac has picked Dan Jones at out-half with Leigh Halfpenny shifting on to the wing to accommodate Rhys Patchell at full-back. Munster supremo Van Graan, meanwhile, has made the biggest call of his tenure to date in leaving Simon Zebo on the bench for their clash with Racing.
Andrew Conway starts at full-back with Keith Earls on the wing, while Niall Scannell gets the nod ahead of Rhys Marshall at hooker. Jack O'Donoghue has overcome his ankle issue to start.
As expected, Racing have kept All Black legend Dan Carter in reserve with Springbok out-half Pat Lambie starting and the Parisians are ready to take on Munster again after meeting in the pool stages four times in the past two seasons.
"We know each other well," Racing coach Laurent Travers said.
"Maybe it will play on the strategies put in place. It may be necessary to expect a different match than a repeat. Playing Munster, we know it's the best game in the European Cup.
"There is no need for additional motivation than the prospect of a title. Everyone wants to touch the Grail. We expect a very committed match."