Neil Francis: Tale of two Teddys with Luke McGrath adding new sub-plot for Leinster
Loss of wing wonder Lowe would be a blow to Leinster's chances in Bilbao showdown
Racing 92 played their last home game of the regular Top 14 season 450 miles from Paris in Vannes, Brittany. At that time they needed a win to ensure they got a bye and a home draw in the Top 14 semi-finals.
It would appear that the splendidly appointed U Arena which is Racing's home turf was rented out that weekend to Beyonce and Jay Z so they could practise for their extensive upcoming European Tour this summer.
Cue a Gallic shrug! Business is business, I suppose. Jacky Lorenzetti is losing his pants maintaining his expensively assembled lotharios from all over the world that you would almost forgive him for turning a buck as the season comes to a close. A 1,000-mile round trip before the Heineken Cup final for the squad - no bother to them.
Aristocrats? Maybe downgrade them to a better class of mercenary. Racing are the best team in the Top 14 on form and have won more matches than any other team in the league and I suspect that they may well go on and win that league. I do not know how they keep going. The final is on June 2 and four of their forwards and three backs will be playing a three-Test series against New Zealand for the following three weeks and return just in time for pre-season training. A remarkable feat of endurance and physical obduracy. How do World Rugby put it - 'player welfare is our number one priority'?
On the basis that this is 'Leinster's championship to lose,' we might just take the contrarian point of view just to see if there is any hope at all for the poor auld Parisians.
Last weekend when the summer finally arrived, Teddy's ice creams received patronage from me before a walk down the pier. This weekend Teddys will also feature strongly as they go for a run in the park. Teddy Thomas and Teddy Iribaren are the key men in Racing's team - if they catch fire then Racing can go 'crazy …in love.' Sorry.
When Maxime Machenaud ruptured his ACL the week before last, it was undeniably a cruel blow for the player himself but a much bigger blow to his team. Machenaud's inestimable presence at the base for Racing was key in bringing his team into a position of ascendancy.
Quite often when a major personality on a team is ruled out through injury, it can have a galvanising rather than a detrimental effect on the team. Leinster may also have factored in his loss which could have a negative impact on the way they would play his replacement. The anticipation and expectation of trying to counter him is gone and Leinster may not pay much attention to his replacement, Teddy Iribaren, which would be a big mistake.
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Racing's reserve scrum-half gets to play in the European final. Aged 27, he got to where he is now without anyone noticing. At 5'7", he is a synapse away from being Lilliputian. He is though the type of scrum-half that Leinster don't like playing against - think Gareth Davies of the Scarlets. Iribaren is electric in thought and in pace with a much quicker and more accurate pass than Machenaud and he is a guy primed to put tempo into this game.
Racing know that if they go toe to toe with Leinster that they will run out of steam after 50 minutes. There are certain members of their pack who are not geared to an all-action game. Such as the gargantuan 26-stone beast of a man, Ben Tameifuna - the last time I saw something like him in a field they had to put the whole herd down. Racing's enormous pack are not going to win this game if they take on Leinster pack in a power play - however, if Racing's backs take the lead off a snappy passing performance from their reserve scrum-half this just might have a disconcerting effect on Leinster particularly if they are unable to smother Racing in midfield or if they caught narrow on the flanks. Play ball against Leinster and you might have a chance.
Machenaud's skills will be missed. He is not far behind Conor Murray as a box-kicker and Racing will keenly miss that chance to attack accurately in the air. Iribaren is a good box-kicker and place-kicker but does not have the ability and experience to match Machenaud's exit strategy and this will be felt by Racing. The French unquestionably will have to alter the way they play to accommodate Iribaren.
The Leinster team is announced tomorrow lunchtime with the domino effect of Luke McGrath's fitness centre stage. It is a huge call. Jamison Gibson-Park is fully fit and had a very satisfactory afternoon against the Scarlets. I would rather have a fully-fit half-back - a key position - on the field rather than take a gamble just so you can get your X-factor winger into the side.
If McGrath makes it, and Gibson-Park isn't needed as back-up off the bench, it will help provide the match-up of the season. James Lowe on the left and Teddy Thomas on the right - what a square off. Both men wear buns in their hair - it's the bunfight at the OK corral.
The guns, and buns, however, may have to remain in their holsters if McGrath is deemed too great a risk and Racing will look to target Jordan Larmour's inexperience.
Thomas looked immortal against Munster but the southern province were still in bed in the first half an hour of that semi-final. Alex Wootton missed six tackles in the quarter final against Toulon and missed four in the semi-final.
Disdain It was hard to watch Wootton's performance and when Thomas sensed he was at sea he treated the young Munster winger with disdain, particularly when he cut back in for what should have been his hat-trick, he looked at Wootton as if he was a side dish he hadn't ordered.
Popping the ball to Machenaud behind Munster's try-line was an example of the world of insanity that Thomas lives in. He has a face unclouded by thought and lives on instinct and very little else. Leinster must be very wary of him and at the same time expose and take advantage of his defensive fragility. Even when he does make a tackle, it is usually the wrong man.
Don't watch the match - watch the two gunslingers with the hole in their britches. Maybe the battle of the Ryans in the second-row will be as entertaining? Maybe the poker at the breakdown. The guessing and second guessing at lineout time. The power plays at scrum-time or Leinster trying to keep their penalty count below five.
Then there is Tom Brady at 10 - amidst all of this madness, an oasis of calm. If Johnny plays well, Leinster win.