Wednesday 23 May 2018

True champions dig in their heels to edge arm wrestle

Leinster 15 Racing 92 12

Leinster’s players celebrate their Champions Cup success. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster’s players celebrate their Champions Cup success. Photo: Sportsfile

Brendan Fanning at the San Mamés Stadium

In this, the 23rd staging of the Heineken/Champions Cup final, the organisers hit on one of those magnificent venues: located bang in Bilbao's city centre, and a lovely city at that. They wouldn't know a rugby ball from a pineapple in this part of the world, and it's unlikely if any of the locals tuned in to proceedings in the San Mamés Stadium yesterday that they'll be abandoning the round ball game.

When Leinster are celebrating this historic success - their fourth time as champions of Europe, and fifth if you add in their Challenge Cup success - they will congratulate each other for winning nine games in a row. That the last one was a tense, error-strewn struggle where at no stage did they look like playing the way they wanted to, well so it goes. Imagine if they were supping their pints today and rueing how had it been taken away from them?

Penalty scorers Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton enjoy the moment. Photo: Sportsfile
Penalty scorers Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton enjoy the moment. Photo: Sportsfile

And that was a distinct possibility. As Racing - deprived of their playmaker Patrick Lambie in the third minute, having lost their captain and goal-kicker Maxime Machenaud a week after the semi-final - tried to work the space for replacement Remi Tales to drop a goal to take the game to extra time, you could easily envisage something else going wrong that might have given Racing a game-winning try. It was that sort of day.

This was billed as Leinster's to lose. Before a ball had been kicked in the semi-final they were favourites to win the trophy; after their demolition of Scarlets the odds came in a bit more; and once Racing - outstanding in their win over Munster in the other half of the draw - lost Machenaud in the run-up to this final then Leinster were backable only if you had large sacks of loot to make your modest return.

By the time we had got to the break a landslide was off the agenda. And when we got to the endgame Leinster were hanging on by three points in a game they never controlled. It was fitting that Isa Nacewa should have popped over the six points in the last six minutes for his contribution to the cause over two incarnations has been immense. And he had a wretched game yesterday - so to nail the points in those circumstances reflects well on his mental strength.

It wasn't as if lots of Leinster players had awful games, rather very few of them got close to the level they wanted. Man of the match James Ryan was the exception. If the Lions were touring this summer he would be in the Test team, which would be useful for the tourists given his astonishing record of 20 games of professional rugby, and 20 wins. Series sorted then.

Leinster's Sean Cronin. Photo: PA
Leinster's Sean Cronin. Photo: PA

Carrying positively against the Racing defence was hard, but with the greasy ball it multiplied the difficulty factor. Others coped fairly well - Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw for example - but Racing were picking off Leinster behind the gain line with spot tackles and only when Leinster played more direct rugby and applied numbers to secure quick ball did they look the better side.

Bur they didn't - or couldn't - do anywhere near enough of that. So it was a slog, made harder by a penalty count of 10. That's not a calamitous figure but it felt like every one robbed them of confidence. Dan Leavy, with three, looked like he would have to be whipped off before Wayne Barnes binned him.

Mind you, the same referee somehow allowed Leone Nakarawa to stay on the field despite a deliberate knock-on at the end of the first half. Johnny Sexton slotted the kick to tie the game at 6-6 at half-time but they should have been up against 14 men for the first 10 minutes of the second half. Instead they resumed the struggle, looking like it just wouldn't be their day: another two penalties conceded in the first five minutes of that second period allowed Teddy Iribaren to kick Racing ahead again.

And how effective he had been. He got off to a flyer, slotting a fine kick after just three minutes of the first half and never looked back. His forwards were really good, making life a misery for Leinster at the breakdown where the quality of ball was so slow as to be maddening.

Leinster's Jack McGrath celebrates. Photo: Reuters
Leinster's Jack McGrath celebrates. Photo: Reuters

So for 40 minutes we had the Teddy and Johnny show - with six points apiece. And after the break they picked up where they left off. If the most concerning moments in the first half had been Sexton's decision to pass up a handy shot on goal in favour of a quickie - Leavy was turned over for a penalty - the second period was one where as soon as they looked like getting somewhere they lost control again. It was then they went direct, close enough to the ruck, and mixed it up a bit that they were able to get a run on Racing. That's what allowed Sexton two shots in the third quarter - he nailed the first for 9-9 - but they couldn't build on it.

Instead Iribaren put Racing ahead again on 71 minutes after Leinster were done for dropping a maul. To their credit they backed themselves to get field position and opportunity to save the day. And with Sexton handing the kicking duties over to his captain, Nacewa duly obliged.

"It was great for Isa to finish off with the last couple of penalties," Sexton said. "I'd slipped earlier and tweaked my groin a little so it was good to have him there."

Neither of Nacewa's shots were exactly off the charts on difficulty rating, but in the circumstances the pressure was intense. At times like that champions prove them. That's what Nacewa did. That's what Leinster did. They are the best team in Europe.

Scorers - Leinster: Sexton 3 pens, Nacewa 2 pens. Racing: Iribaren 4 pens.

Leinster's Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty. Photo: Reuters
Leinster's Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty. Photo: Reuters

Leinster: R Kearney; I Nacewa (capt), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Larmour; 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, J Murphy (J Conan 62), D Leavy.

Racing: L Dupichot (J Rokococko 30-38 HIA); T Thomas, V Vakatawa, H Chavancy (capt), M Andreu; P Lambie (R Tales 3), T Iribaren; E Ben Arous (V Kakovin 55), C Chat (O Avei 59), C Gomes Sa (C Johnston 55); D Ryan, L Nakarawa; W Lauret, Y Nyanga, B le Roux (B Chouzenoux 69).

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