Like the the 1991 hit goes; “now we’ve come to the end of the road.” And just like that song, this final match in the Champions Cup 2018 season will develop the Leinster team from Boys 2 Men! #ChampionsCupCheese
So, Leinster v Racing in the final of the Champions Cup! Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that we’d get this far? Well, to be honest, I did. I truly felt that the writing was on the wall after we beat Exeter home and away in December. At that stage, Leinster looked unbeatable and unpredictable as they tailor-made a unique game plan for each opponent. By no means did I think it would be an easy journey to the final, especially given the huge teams we’ve had to tackle along the way, but the way in which Leinster dispatched their opponents is what has made them look so strong and unrivaled favourites to lift the cup. Leinster has faced the toughest route to a final:
- Defeated the Top14 league’s leaders home and away – Montpellier
- Defeated the Pro14 league’s leaders home and away – Glasgow
- Defeated the current Aviva Premiership champions home and away – Exeter
- Defeated the current Champions Cup champions – Saracens
- Defeated the current Pro12 champions – Scarlets
There is absolutely no denying how incredibly tough that must have been on the club both mentally and physically to take on European giants each time the Champions Cup called. To do that and be undefeated going into tomorrow’s final is an amazing achievement for the boys in blue. The hurt that the squad felt from their semi final defeats last season in the Champions Cup against Clermont and Pro12 against Scarlets has surely had some influence on Leinster’s success this season but I think a huge amount of credit has to go to Cullen and Lancaster who have developed this young squad into world beating warriors.
With such a big game like this, I’m sure everyone has been thinking about where they’ll be at 4:45pm (5:45pm in Bilbao) tomorrow for the last couple of weeks. There’s no doubt that anyone who loves Leinster will not miss this match, after-all days like these do not come around that often, well not since 2009-2012. This is a huge moment for the players, the coaches and the backroom team. It’s also a huge moment for the supporters, a chance to bask in Champions Cup glory again! Who would miss this moment, who could make other plans for something so special as this?
Well, me, I could! Let me explain. My good wife is pregnant and we’re expecting our first child to be brought into this world and straight into a Leinster babygrow in a few months time. Before we get all set for our new Irish qualified signing to join our family, we felt it would be a great idea to get a nice sun holiday in before the big day. So, we booked a holiday to Spain early last month, a chance to enjoy some sunshine and chill out because who knows when we’ll get a chance to do this again once the little one is sprung from the bench!
I didn’t initially realise however that the week we booked for our sun holiday would coincide with the Champions Cup final! Yes, I know I know, it was a rookie mistake on my part and one which has caused much frustration, especially this week. Now don’t get me wrong, this has to be among one of my personal greatest examples of “first world problems” but in fairness, it’s THE CHAMPIONS CUP FINAL we’re talking about here!
Anyway, I will get to see 20-30 minutes of the first half before boarding our flight. I’m a pretty nervous flyer, in fact I hate flying and never enjoy it. However, for the first time while the plane is flying through the air at 32,000 feet, I’ll be a lonesome Leinster support (unless there’s another idiot on board who made the same mistake as me) who will be dreaming of Leinster glory, and most likely bricking it for 3 hours due to not knowing the result. I’m pretty sure that any flight anxiety will be put on hold while I get horrible images in my head of Dan Carter lifting the trophy! Needless to say, the moment we touch down on the Spanish tarmac, the phone will be out of airplane mode faster than Leavy was out the gate to score the decisive try against Saracens last month! The result will be available at that point and I’ll know my beloved team’s fate!
So, lets take a look at the band of warriors selected to take on Racing:
15. Rob Kearney (195)
14. Jordan Larmour (19)
13. Garry Ringrose (47)
12. Robbie Henshaw (23)
11. Isa Nacewa (182) CAPTAIN
10. Johnny Sexton (146)
9. Luke McGrath (92)
1. Cian Healy (188)
2. Seán Cronin (150)
3. Tadhg Furlong (81)
4. Devin Toner (215)
5. James Ryan (12)
6. Scott Fardy (19)
7. Dan Leavy (52)
8. Jordi Murphy (104)
16. James Tracy (63)
17. Jack McGrath (130)
18. Andrew Porter (27)
19. Rhys Ruddock (140)
20. Jack Conan (71)
21. Jamison Gibson-Park (50)
22. Joey Carbery (35)
23. Rory O’Loughlin (40)
Lions, Irish internationals and
bears Leinster, oh my!! This is probably the strongest team selection of the season for Leinster. There are 21 Irish internationals in the match day squad. Every Leinster player that featured in Ireland’s Grand Slam victory against England back in March are selected for tomorrow (14 players). What more can I say, this is essentially an International team that will take on Racing.
In the backs, we have the very in form and extremely reliable Rob Kearney who is officially the most successful player in Irish rugby history. We have the young prodigy winger Jordan Larmour on his right wing, taking the slot that most would have hoped James Lowe would fill. We have captain Isa Nacewa on the left wing, his final Champions Cup game and 5th appearance in a European final. Let’s hope he ends his glittering career with another winners medal!
In the centre we have HenRose who have been in flying form since their return from injury. Ringrose is electric in attack and defense while Henshaw provides a ruthless power that seems to burst open opposition defense structures. More of the same this weekend lads!
There’s a welcome return of Luke Mc Grath who will take up the scrum half position. This in turn means that Jamison Gibson Park who started the semi final against Scarlets will move to the bench. Because of this, the second and non-EU player quota will be reached, leaving James Lowe out of the match day 23. There will be many debates over this call eg; how fit is McGrath, Gibson Park could easily have started etc., but I feel Cullen has made the right call given that Luke McGrath surely would not have been brought back in unless he was 100% fit. Just like the doubts some had over Henshaws fitness when he came back in recently, we needn’t have been worried. Having Gibson Park on the bench will allow the squad to maintain high tempo in terms of fast delivery of ball from the ruck and phase play. It will also give the supporters peace of mind that there is a highly experienced deputy on the bench for such a crucial position. Of course, it would have been great to see Lowe do his thing against the French outfit but I think we can all agree that his replacement, Jordan Larmour, is capable of creating some memorable moments of his own, hopefully tomorrow afternoon/evening will be another one of those moments.
Healy, Cronin, Furlong! Imagine the opposition scrum lining up against these three guys? Then throw in James Ryan and Toner behind those lads. It sets up a very strong and solid scrum and maul formation. Don’t worry, we also have Fardy, Leavy and Murphy to help out in these areas of the game too, what a lineup!!! The strength and skill of the 1-8 selection cannot be understated. Each of them are incredible ball carriers with a great passing ability, they’re like centres and backs in their accuracy and pace.
Now onto the bench! James Tracy is in line to experience his first European final debut should Cronin need a breather. In fact, everyone on the bench should experience their first go at securing a Champions Cup medal, except for one man, Jack McGrath, who already has a winners medal to his name. In terms of power and skill in our pack, there should be absolutely no let up if and when some of our forwards need to depart the field of play. Porter, Rudduck and Conan will be very suitable and robust replacements for their starting team mates in the forwards department, while Joey Carbery and Rory O’Loughlin will provide reliable support to our backs.
Overall, this is a Champions Cup winning side, you can see clearly why Leinster has been so successful so far this season and why Racing have been given the underdogs tag going into the game. There are very few weaknesses in this side, none that I feel can be truly capitalised on by our opposition.
Where the game and title will be won
Racing has a match day squad that is capable of toppling any other side in Europe on their day. They have already shown this in their demolition of Clermont and Munster in the quarter and semi final respectively. They have some huge names in the business; Pat Lambie at 10, Dan Carter on the bench, Leona Nakarawa, Joe Rokocoko, Camille Chat, Yannick Nyanga, and of course the try scoring machine Teddy Thomas. They also have Donnacha Ryan who knows a thing or two about this Leinster squad.
Accuracy will be crucial, especially in defense, and predominantly on the wings. With Teddy Thomas on the wing, Nacewa will have to put in a defensive master class to hold him out from sprinting up field. Teddy will threaten the left wing constantly as long as he receives good ball from his team mates, his threat is something that Leinster need to nullify consistently as one slip up and he’ll be under the posts.
Nerves will need to be controlled, especially for the young Leinster players who are playing in their first European final. Of course, a lot of these players would have been in high intensity, winner takes all games in the 6 Nations, so they’ll need to keep their heads cool throughout if they want to come out on the winning side. Racing’s team is a lot more seasoned in terms of experience so I’m sure they’ll have a collective calmness about the occasion.
Racing have some very strong ball carriers who generally get beyond the gain line with each collision. Leinster need to make sure that they don’t just make each tackle count, but they need to make sure that they are winning the collisions otherwise we’ll get dominated upfront. Do that, and this is where their fast striking backs could open us up defensively.
Finally, the team that look after possession best will be the ones that create scoring opportunities. High risk passes and around the back offloads are not required in this game, instead a neat but forceful approach is required. Racing has conceded the fewest tries in this season’s Champions Cup so Leinster will need to take some risks at some stage in order to unlock their great defensive structure. Trying no look passes and risky grubbers may be the order of the day but should only be done according to pre-planned plays, tomorrow is not the day to start reinventing the wheel.
I fear this game because it’s a final, and like most people will tell you, anyone can win on the day, all the previous work doesn’t matter at this stage of the competition. I think due to Leinster’s body of work as a whole this season however, it’d be wrong to discount it when predicting a result for this match. Essentially, Leinster has been so good this season that they are very rightly tipped to win tomorrow. Of course, everything could go wrong tomorrow and Racing could do everything right, but I just don’t see the former happening. The squad has been accurate, focused and driven to succeed since the first round match against Montpellier. Seven games later and Leinster look stronger and even more prepared to take the title in Bilbao. Leinster know the hurt of falling at the final stages of this competition and they clearly put corrective measures in place to ensure that they don’t trip up this season, they understand what’s at stake and know it’s all or nothing. I’m going to predict a great win for Leinster tomorrow in Bilbao and my cheeky prediction is that Nacewa will score first and we won’t lose the lead after that. When Leinster do lift the trophy, I’ll be landing at the southern end of the country a short time later. The first thing I’ll do when we get to our final destination is order quatro cerveza, one for each star! COME ON YOU BOYS IN BLUE!!
Leinster 29 – Racing 18
Match Day Result: Leinster 15 – Racing 12