Wednesday 17 July 2019

Machenaud KO puts final on a platter for Sexton

Maxime Machenaud. Photo: PA
Maxime Machenaud. Photo: PA
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If Leinster had invested some of their expected surplus this season in a sniper to pick off a couple of Racing players then Maxime Machenaud and Leone Nakarawa would have topped the wish-list. The latter does so many things so well he would walk into any team, and to have him hobble out of one would be welcome news to the opposition.

As for Machenaud, the scrumhalf's performance against Munster in the Champions Cup semi-final in Bordeaux was as close to what he planned pre-match as makes no odds. He is the heartbeat of Racing: the man who dictates their tempo and the man who picks off points when that pace offers up shots on goal.

Well, for Leinster, one out of two ain't bad. Nakarawa will be in Bilbao on Saturday afternoon, contributing to a Racing lineout that poses the biggest threat to Leinster this season - up there, or beyond, the challenge of Saracens in the quarter-finals. But when the news came through last week that Machenaud would be missing, Leinster's odds shortened another bit.

Factoring Dimitri Szarzewski out of the equation is more good news for Leinster, though at least Racing will get to start with Camille Chat whose aggression levels in this European campaign have been consistently on the edge.

The effect of Machenaud's absence is both spiritual and technical. As captain and leader, his importance is massive, but even if he was neither his value as a rugby player is key to what they do. After a distinctly dodgy start to the campaign where they were one win from three - Machenaud had missed two of those games - he was back in harness for the home win over Castres which got them back on track. In five straight Champions Cup starts, he has scored 84 points, and was massively influential in the quarter-final win away against Clermont and the home semi in Bordeaux against Munster.

Teddy Iribaren is the man likely to fill the gap. With 25 Top 14 games coming to this weekend he's not a novice - and typical of France he will be place-kicking as well - but at 76kgs he will be a target for Leinster. His quick feet are a defence mechanism for his light frame. Man-on-man defence is not his bag.

Luke McGrath is no heavyweight either but he is a savage competitor. He is back in training, and if he gets through this week in one piece then it completes a nice swing for Leinster. Fergus McFadden is unlikely to have his name in the hat but Rhys Ruddock is a good possibility, and Jordi Murphy better again.

Having the weekend off is timely - an understrength Racing were at home to Agen in the Top 14 last night - as Leo Cullen tries to balance his resources on a busy run-in to the finish line.

Getting back on the European podium is comfortably top of the agenda. And everywhere you look you see players with either the talent or experience or both to deliver that. For Johnny Sexton, the leader in chief, the prospect of a fourth Heineken/Champions Cup medal to go with the Challenge Cup one he picked up on Joe Schmidt's last campaign, is especially attractive.

His two seasons in France were useful in his further development as a player but not obviously enjoyable. The Racing team he will face in Bilbao is a different animal to the one he left three years ago to come back to Dublin. He has moved on a bit himself. With his old mate Machenaud out of the story, it's nicely set up for Sexton to take centre stage.

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