Cup finals tend to be dour, defence-oriented affairs, and while tomorrow could be the same, it would be disappointing if Leinster and Racing 92 decided to batten down the hatches, given the positive, attacking mindset that both teams have displayed all season. It’s wrong to describe them as similar in terms of their styles of play, but they know how to make good use of the ball, albeit in different ways.
For each side, there is more at stake than a trophy; Leinster have the chance to join Toulouse as one of only two teams to win four titles in this competition, and Racing have yet to taste European glory after falling short against Saracens two years ago. When you add into the mix the subplot of Johnny Sexton potentially getting one over on his former club (who have had a lot to say about him since he left them), this fixture has the makings of a memorable sporting occasion.
The most important thing that Leinster need to do this weekend is to deny Racing a fast start. Despite coming close, Munster ultimately couldn’t recover from giving up an enormous lead early on in the Stade Chaban-Delmas, and as deadly as Leinster’s attack is, playing catch-up in a final is the stuff of nightmares. Leinster just about got out of jail in this type of scenario against Exeter in the Aviva back in December, but pulling it off against a lethal Racing side in a knockout game is an entirely different challenge.
Munster’s woeful start against Racing was mainly down to how they let their forwards get over the gain line too easily. Their line speed was uncharacteristically slow and they were content to put in soak tackles instead of hammering into the ball carrier, and doing so against players like Yannick Nyanga and Camille Chat is never a good idea:
Once a team with the backs that Racing possess get on the front foot, it’s difficult to wrestle momentum back off them. Munster’s back line were the subject of harsh criticism for their tackling efforts on Teddy Thomas, but stopping him or Virimi Vakatawa when they have a dominant pack in front of them and are running on to the ball at pace is easier said than done.
There’s a perception that Munster’s three-quarter line were stand-offish in defence against Racing, but if you don’t have a running start at players with top-end pace, the battle is half-lost. Tackling them front-on when you have had time to set yourself beforehand is hard enough, but if you have to scramble across, the below is tough to avoid:
Leinster marshalled the Scarlets wingers about as well as anyone can in the semi-finals, but Wayne Pivac’s side weren’t making any headway up front to give their backs space to run on to. Total dominance of the Racing pack is an unrealistic aim, meaning that Leinster are going to face tricky situations when their opponents gain traction up through the middle and then fling the ball wide.
Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose have developed an excellent understanding of one another, and they bring an effective combination of physicality and high-quality defensive reading. Isa Nacewa and Jordan Larmour are proactive defenders, but you would have expected Munster’s defence to shut Racing down and that didn’t happen. Strange things happen in big games; some of Leinster’s squad were around when Northampton started at 100 miles an hour back in 2011, and they will know that lightning doesn’t strike twice. Leinster kept their concentration for almost the entire 80 minutes in the last round of this tournament and the same will be required tomorrow.
If It’s Not Broken, Don’t Fix It
Leinster’s impressive win over the Scarlets was founded on the manner in which they bullied the Llanelli side close to the ruck, but they identified and exploited space in the wider channels when the opportunities were there:
Racing have a larger pack than the Welsh side, but the tactics that Leinster employ tomorrow will probably be broadly similar to the ones used against the Scarlets, with enough tweaks that they’re not predictable.
Taking the Racing forwards on may seem ill-judged, but if Leinster can force them to keep getting up off the deck and putting in tackles for extended periods, it will take the legs out from under them. The French side started to show clear signs of fatigue from around the middle of the second half in Bordeaux, and nearly let a win slip through their fingers by not realigning quickly enough:
Munster ran riot in that final quarter, and were a couple of errors away from a famous comeback. When Leinster hit fifth gear, there aren’t many teams who can cope with them, and although they would prefer to be ahead when the clock reaches the hour mark, it is conceivable that they could overcome a small- or medium-sized deficit if they are going to be afforded this much space in the last 20 minutes of the game.
The other strategy that is sure to be rolled out by Leinster again is aerial bombardment. Leo Cullen’s side kicked long repeatedly from the start of the second half against the Scarlets to pin them back in their own 22:
Kicking to a side who like holding on to the ball in hand can be dangerous, but the thinking behind Leinster playing territory was that it negated the Scarlets’ biggest strength. Even the most adventurous of teams are less inclined to throw the ball around deep in their own half than they are in other parts of the field. When you stop the opposition from playing their natural game, you’re well on the road to beating them, and with Leinster being ruthless off turnover ball, Racing will be reluctant to takes risks anywhere near their own try line.
Aside from yielding valuable field position, kicking will be crucial for Leinster this weekend because of the Racing backs’ unsteadiness in the air. Steff Evans’ lack of height was exposed by Johnny Sexton and Fergus McFadden three weeks ago, forcing an error from the Scarlets winger in his own red zone:
Leinster went on to score off the back off the five-metre scrum that ensued from the above mistake, and after getting that kind of reward from an accurate kick and a well-timed chase, they are bound to target Racing in this area tomorrow.
Munster didn’t get the return from putting the ball above Thomas and Vakatawa that they would have expected, but considering how clueless both players are under the high ball, plus Marc Andreu being tiny (5’5″) for a modern-day professional winger, Leinster are guaranteed to compete in the air. If they can draw knock-ons out of Racing by launching garryowens, they should be able to exert pressure through their scrum, which was a potent weapon against the Scarlets:
The Cusp Of Greatness
The possibility of setting a record brings mental pressure that makes or breaks teams. Leinster’s players (inluding the younger ones) haven’t suffered from the anxiety that crunch games at club or Test level can induce, and it’s worth remembering that 14 of their matchday 23 helped Ireland secure a Grand Slam in Twickenham less than two months ago. However, playing in a European final is something several of them haven’t encountered, and as we saw with the Scarlets in the last round, entering uncharted territory can turn the legs to jelly.
There are still enough players in Leinster’s squad from their halcyon days to put the greener squad members at ease, not to mention the man that they have in charge. Leo Cullen has more experience of this tournament than most, and the significance of being part of a fourth European Cup win won’t be lost on him. Racing won’t lie down for Leinster (notwithstanding the absence of their talismanic scrum-half Maxime Machenaud), and the Irish side will have to be wary of Nyanga’s lineout skills in particular. Tomorrow might be the day that the French club go from being also-rans to champions, but Leinster have an opportunity that very few players in the game ever get.