Date: Saturday, 12th May
Venue: San Mames Stadium, Bilbao
The hot-favourites certainly didn’t disappoint as they overcame defending Champions Saracens in the quarterfinals and thrashed Scarlets in the semifinals. However, they do face stern opposition in French side Racing 92 who swept aside Munster in Bordeaux a couple of weeks previously. What’s the form guide for the Irish province? Well, they remain leaders of Conference B in the Pro14 despite losing heavily to Connaught. But before then they were ruthless in their dismantling of Scarlets, so Pro14 form might not be anything worthy to count upon here.
Therefore, I’m going to look to the semifinal at the Aviva Stadium, where Leinster were so clinical, powerful and precise. And they will need to be the exact same against Racing: the Leinster defenders will have to be watertight to deny Racing momentum by stopping key ball carriers such as Leone Nakarawa, Camille Chat, Wencelas Lauret & Yannick Nyanga at source. Against Scarlets, the 3-times champions dominated proceedings at the breakdown and in the final I expect the breakdown to be the catalyst for victory as Racing usually deploy 3 players per ruck, therefore I expect this area to be a vigorously contested battle.
Leinster will know that Racing are very quick around the blocks with a high-tempo gameplan. If enough damage is done in the first 20-30 minutes then the French side will be happy to just defend until around the 60th minute when it’ll be too late for Leinster to come back. In my opinion, it’s essential that Leinster must strike first and then be incredibly rigid in defence to keep out the Parisian club as much as possible until they’re out on their feet. That’s how I see Leinster winning this game.
In terms of injury, Leinster more or less have a clean bill however they do have some high-profile absentees in British & Irish Lion flanker Sean O’Brien and winger Fergus McFadden who are both out for the season. Young talent Jordan Larmour is given his chance on the wing in McFadden’s place while the only other change is the inclusion of Luke McGrath with Gibson-Park moving to the bench.
Most people probably did back Racing to win in Bordeaux, but few had predicted that they would win with such ease. Their ferocity blew apart Munster in the first 20 minutes with French internationals Teddy Thomas and Virimi Vakatawa proving too devastating while old head Yannick Nyanga still showed what he’s got in terms of destructive ball-carrying despite being 34. They also had the composure and power in defence to knock back Munster until it was about 60 minutes, then the job was done as it was too late for Munster who scored a few late tries which added consolation to the scoreboard.
Since the semifinal, Racing have been in good form, smashing both Bordeaux and Agen to keep the pressure on Montpellier at the top of the Top 14 table, sitting only 1 point behind the leaders in 2nd. However they do have to cope with the gigantic loss of scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud who will miss the final and the French tour of New Zealand with an excruciatingly painful knee ligament injury. They do have an enormously talented squad but I can’t see Racing coping without their vital cog.
As I’ve said above, if Racing don’t score 1st then it’s going to be difficult for them to win. Their strategy relies on a blitzkrieg style start in order to startle their opponents and I can’t see them winning without it.
All eyes on
For Leinster, my eyes will be on Leinster talisman and another club legend, Isa Nacewa. This will be his last European appearance before retirement and what a servant he has been, not only to Leinster but to European rugby itself as his versatility and leadership have played a key role in the province’s triumphs in the last dozen years or so. He has the crash-ball capacity to play inside centre as well as the pace and the ability to receive crossfield kicks to play on the wing. Wherever he’s playing, Racing 92 beware, he is always a threat and Leinster will want nothing more than to send him off with his 3rd Champions Cup trophy.
For Racing, my one to look out for will be Leone Nakarawa, originally nominated for the European Player of the Season, his offloading ability is simply unrivalled in the northern hemisphere, he can grace the ball in one hand so effectively. No matter how you tackle him, the Fijian superstar will still be able to find some way to get the ball to a teammate. But it’s not just his supreme offloading that will threaten Leinster on Saturday, it will also be his pace and power as well as his engine, as he has played every single minute of Racing’s games this tournament.
Head to head
It’s a mouthwatering head-to-head at 10 where Jonny Sexton could line up against former All Black Dan Carter. Sexton has never won a game against Carter as Leinster haven’t played the Parisians since before Carter (or Sexton for that mattered) was signed and Carter retired before Ireland defeated the All Blacks for the first time. This is Sexton’s chance to finally outclass one of his greatest rivals.
Prediction: Leinster by 7
By Jacob Bassford