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Leinster Rugby vs Racing '92
European Rugby Champions Cup Final
San Mames Stadium, Bilbao, Spain,
Saturday, 12th May 2018, 17:45 (16:45 Irish time)

TV: Live on Sky Sports/ BT Sports

Leinster are back in the top European final for the first time in six years.

When Leinster were last in the final demolishing Ulster in Twickenham, it's fair to say Leinster fans became almost nonchalant with the success and perhaps the players lost their hunger also. The following season they failed to even qualify from their pool. A quarter-final and a semi-final defeat against the same team in Toulon followed in the next two seasons. However such was the toxic nature of the Matt O'Connor regime, those respectable European performances couldn't save his job.

So Leo Cullen came in and it's fair to say he had a tough old start. In his first European season, they lost five out of their six pool matches including a final day humiliation away to Wasps, the kind Leinster used to dish out rather than receive. With all the provinces failing to qualify and the English and French game throwing cash around like London city traders at a strip club on bonus day, the outlook was fairly bleak. Were the days of Irish teams having success against the big English and French clubs over?

The answer wasn't long in coming as Cullen, who now had Stuart Lancaster working under him as coach, put his faith in Leinster's string of talented youngsters. Last season Leinster topped a tough pool before soundly beating the fancied Wasps in the quarter-finals. They lost narrowly to Clermont in a semi-final in Bordeaux, but it was no disgrace to lose to the side who would become French champions. That defeat did expose some frailties in the team though and once again, in the manner of Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn before them, Scott Fardy was signed to bring some southern hemisphere nous and experience into the second row. James Lowe was also signed to bring some extra quality and excitement to the outside channels. It was only after they were signed that people became aware that only two of Fardy, Lowe and kiwi scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park could be picked in one match-day squad due to EU laws.

Lowe was late in arriving but Fardy made his presence felt right from the start giving the pack an extra edge. He had made his name as a blindside flanker with the Wallabies but he was strictly signed to play in the boiler room for Leinster. Then on the morning of the first pool match at home to Montpellier Fardy had to pull out of the match as his wife went into labour. With Johnny Sexton also out, this looked like a potentially fatal blow. Enter young master James Ryan, a 21 year-old who some in the stands wouldn't have recognised but a player who'd long been tipped for greatness by all those who'd seen him play for St. Michaels. Ryan came in and played so well that Fardy simply wasn't missed, which is the best compliment you can give him. Fardy did play the following week when Leinster went to Glasgow and stuffed them. There followed a hugely intense double-header against English champions Exeter. Their pack came in with a big rep but Leinster showed them the difference between a great club pack and a great international pack as they ground out two wins.

There was a perfunctory hammering of Glasgow back in the RDS but Leinster rounded things off with a fine win in Montpellier, their first win in France in four years. With six wins from six they were top seeds but this only landed them the current champions Saracens in the Aviva. But an early second half scoring burst from Leinster effectively settled the contest and Leinster moved onto the Scarlets who they simply destroyed up front to record a comfortable win. So now Leinster are back in their fourth final in ten seasons and they're looking at drawing level with Toulouse for most overall wins.

Standing in their way is Racing 92 who are looking for their first win having previously lost in the final to Saracens two years ago. Racing have come back as a force on the back of Jacky Lorenzetti's massive investment in the last ten years or so. That investment included signing a certain one J. Sexton from Leinster back in 2013 for a couple of seasons. For one reason or another that move didn't really work out and Sexton was happy to return in 2015 but he was replaced by one of the all time greats in Dan Carter. Carter inspired them to a Top14 win in 2016 but time has caught up with him and he's no longer a starter.

This season Racing qualified second in their pool, losing to both Castres and Munster. But they've improved as the season has gone on and they were excellent in defeating Clermont in the quarter-final before they completely blitzed Munster in the semi in the first twenty minutes. However they suffered a massive blow when they lost scrum-half Maxime Machenaud to a bad injury two week ago. Machenaud wasn't just their skipper, he's been their talisman this season and his place-kicking alone was a match-winner for them. He's replaced by Teddy Iribaren in the only change to the team that started the semi-final.

South African out-half Pat Lambie will take over the place kicking which will increase the pressure on him. The explosive Virimi Vakatawa and the steady Henry Chavancy make up a centre partnership of contrasting skills while Louis Dupichot, Teddy Thomas and Marc Andreu make up the back three, with Thomas a particular dangerman as he showed against both Ireland and Munster his season. In the pack Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat and Cedate Gomes Sa make up a powerful and mobile front row. But their second row of Donnacha Ryan and Fijian Leone Nakarawa will be key to their chances if they are to have any chance of winning the match. Nakarawa is probably the best ball-playing second row in the world and his running and offloads can bamboozle defences while Ryan is a tough but intelligent player who wears his heart on his sleeve. He'll know the Leinster lineout very well and he'll be targeting Sean Cronin's throw so Leinster will have to find a way to neutralise him. In the back row Wenceslas Lauret and Bernard Le Roux are both great groundhogs and former Toulouse mainstay Yannick Nyanga has had a late career revival and he takes over as captain from Machenaud.

As ever this season the selection question revolved around which one of Lowe, Gibson-Park and Fardy will be left out of the squad. As with the Scarlets match it's Lowe who misses out again as Luke McGrath returns from injury to start at scrum-half. But with his lack of match-fitness, it's probably the smart choice to include Jamison Gibson-Park on the bench instead of Nick McCarthy who didn't convince when brought on against Saracens. With Fergus McFadden gone for the season, Jordan Larmour starts on the right wing in the only other change to the backline from the Scarlets match. It's been an incredible season for Larmour as he was part of a Grand Slam win and now starts in the European final. Isa Nacewa stays on the left wing and resumes the captaincy from out-half Johnny Sexton while Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are both in red hot form in the centre. Rob Kearney starts at full back looking for his fourth winners medal, a target he shares with Isa, Sexton, Healy and Devin Toner.

The same pack that started both the quarter-final and the semi go out again. Ryan's impact since that surprise debut against Montpellier has been such that he has simply demanded inclusion from the start. Devin Toner has also been on exceptional form so the smart move was to put Fardy back to the blindside to accommodate the two of them. Beside him Dan Leavy, another Michaels tyro who was tipped from a long way out, has grown into the player we thought he could be and he's made Sean O'Brien's absence pretty much a non-issue. Completing the backrow Jordi 'Nordi' Murphy has been in excellent form ever since announcing his re-location to Ulster next season. The front row features two players who've really re-discovered their best form this season in Cian Healy and Sean Cronin, plus a chap from Wexford called Tadhg Furlong who's simply become one of the most valuable players in the world.

As has become a strange tradition this season Leinster warmed up for the knock-out stages with a truly horrendous performance. Before Saracens they were rubbish against Ospreys, before Scarlets they were brutal against Benetton, but they took this tradition to a whole new level in preparation for the final by absolutely stinking the joint out in getting hammered 47-10 away to Connacht. Sure Connacht were at full strength and had all the motivation with John Muldoon's last game, but to meekly play the Generals to Connacht's Harlem Globetrotters is something no Leinster team should ever accept, especially one with several internationals in the starting line-up. That match should have little or no impact on tomorrow's game but it will make the management question the future of some of the players involved because frankly they embarrassed the jersey.

Leinster have been made big favourites again tomorrow and the bookies have generally shown to be on the money this season. However with rain forecast it could become a bit of a lottery akin to the Ireland match in Paris this year. Racing will provide a strong test but you hope Leinster will just be that bit too strong for them and this can bring home the trophy a forth time.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Racing '92s
Teams Rob Kearney 15 Louis Dupichot
Jordan Larmour 14 Teddy Thomas
Garry Ringrose 13 Virimi Vakatawa
Robbie Henshaw 12 Henry Chavancy
Isa Nacewa (C)
11 Marc Andreu
Johnny Sexton
10 Pat Lambie
Luke McGrath 9 Teddy Iribaren

Cian Healy 1 Eddy Ben Arous
Sean Cronin
2 Camille Chat
Tadhg Furlong 3 Cedate Gomes Sa
Devin Toner
4 Donnacha Ryan
James Ryan 5 Leone Nakarawa
Scott Fardy 6 Wenceslas Lauret
Dan Leavy 7 Bernard Le Roux
Jordi Murphy 8 Yannick Nyanga (C)

Replacements James Tracy 16 Ole Avei
Jack McGrath 17 Vasil Kakovin
Andrew Porter 18 Census Johnston
Rhys Ruddock 19 Boris Palu
Jack Conan 20
Baptiste Chouzenoux
Jamison Gibson-Park 21 Antoine Gibert
Joey Carbery 22 Dan Carter
Rory O'Loughlin 23 Joe Rokocoko

Not Considered
due to Injury
Josh van der Flier,
Cathal Marsh,
Fergus McFadden,
Dave Kearney,
Sean O'Brien,
Richardt Strauss

Dimitri Szarzewski,
Maxime Machenaud
Officials Referee: Wayne Barnes (Eng),
Assistant Referees: JP Doyle (Eng), Tom Foley (Eng),
TMO Rowan Kitt (Eng)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2018-05-11

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