Thursday 19 September 2019

Victor Costello: Leinster will be crowned champions of Europe if they avoid their problems of old

Jonathan Sexton, right, and head coach Leo Cullen during a Leinster Rugby press conference at the San Mames Stadium, in Bilbao, Spain. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton, right, and head coach Leo Cullen during a Leinster Rugby press conference at the San Mames Stadium, in Bilbao, Spain. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dan Leavy tries to escape the attentions of Steff Evans and Rob Evans of Scarlets

Victor Costello

It is never wise to take Champions Cup finals for granted.

Leinster have worked hard but there have been occasions in the history of the competition where they haven't been nervy affairs. The 2012 game against Ulster was one such occasion where one could enjoy the day with little tension.

Toulon broke the mould when it came to travelling French teams but the DNA remains the same. They will always suffer on the road.

Tomorrow's final has all the hallmarks of an Irish win but there are a few glaring issues Leinster need to be at peace with before the celebrations can begin.

If you were to cast a critical eye over the last few seasons, there have been a couple of areas that have not caused problems recently but are lurking below the surface somewhere.

The problem is, some of these areas happen to be Racing 92's strengths. The Top 14 outfit came out of the blocks against Munster and before they knew what hit them, they had lost the game.

Leinster have had their fair share of slow starts over the last few seasons and it was not long ago that this was a recurrent problem.

It was this time last year against Clermont when it cost them the most.

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Leinster have added intensity and urgency to their game recently and as much as the first 20 minutes of a game has a cliched importance, it is vital they hit the ground running in Bilbao, more than ever before.

One of the keys to Leinster's success this season has been their ability to keep the ball, they have starved opposition of possession and have eventually worn them down with continuous attacks.

To give Munster their credit they are very rarely obliterated at the breakdown. Racing took control in this area and hence had quick ball moved outside at pace which caused Munster's downfall.

This has not been an issue so far this season for Leinster but it is an area where they will need to make their presence felt again.

Dan Leavy's strong form will need to continue as loose ball in Racing hands will cause problems out wide.

Racing will attack the set-pieces, particularly their lineouts. Leinster historically had trouble here but the introduction of Scott Fardy has stabilised the lineout considerably.

Fardy has also improved the defence of opposition lineouts. Racing, however, dominated their own lineouts and Munster's in their last European outing.

Donnacha Ryan is arguably playing his best rugby to date in any of his previous shirts and you can be sure his homework on Leinster will make the lineout a very competitive and vital area for both teams.

Presuming Leinster will have a clean supply of ball, they will need to attack the Racing 10-12-13 channel like they did against Saracens.

This will be their most effective ploy considering the form of Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw. If Pat Lambie starts at out-half, he will not cope with the pressure.

Leinster are capable of intimidating Racing in this area and repetitive strikes will wear them down and make them doubt themselves and therefore capitulate.

The French back-three will fear the traditional Irish high ball, particularly early on, but if they have ball in hand they can be devastating.

It looks like Juan Imhoff will be playing and we only have to go back to Ireland versus Argentina at the World Cup in 2015 to wince at how lethal he is in attack.

All in all, it's vital Leinster keep control of every facet of this game. This is nothing new this season but could prove more difficult against this French outfit.

Fergus McFadden's injury will dilute the passion and pride in the dressing-room but Luke McGrath's expected return will add to it and increase the pace at the breakdown.

Leinster have beaten the best of the British and French clubs on the road to Bilbao, and as much as you would try and figure out Racing's strengths, we are lucky that we are not in their shoes - trying to prevent Leinster from making theirs count.

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