Saturday’s Champions Cup final between Leinster and Racing 92 won’t be remembered for being a spectacle, but the there’s no question that Leinster earned their fourth star. Much like Ireland did against France at the start of the Six Nations, the Dublin-based side demonstrated their champion quality by grinding out a victory despite playing well below their best. The awful weather conditions were a factor in the game being tough to watch, but in true cup final fashion, both Leinster and Racing ended up feeding off each other’s mistakes, and Racing’s higher error count on the day proved to be their undoing.
Search And Destroy
Racing’s game plan for this final seemed to be based predominantly on negating their opponents. It was disappointing because of how enjoyable they have been to watch this year, but they devised an intelligent strategy based on slowing Leinster’s ruck ball to a crawl and blitzing hard from out to in at 13. Leinster are near-unstoppable when they generate momentum and Racing denied them quick ball by sticking hands into the ruck, applying pressure over the ball and falling on the wrong side:
These tactics were successful in the sense that they stopped Leinster from getting into their rhythm for nearly the entire contest. There were only two brief periods (one in the 31st minute and another in the 53rd minute) where Leinster built up a head of steam, but for the majority of the game, they struggled to make any sort of headway, bar some dominant carries from Dan Leavy and the outstanding James Ryan. Coupled with the bruising physicality from the Racing forwards, it was as complete a defensive performance as you will see at any level of the game.
There are very few teams in this part of the world who can draw and pass, commit defenders and narrow opposition midfield defences as well as Leinster, and it’s a credit to Racing that they limited their opportunities in the wider channels to sporadic half-breaks. Wraparounds and decoy runs are the core tenets of Leinster’s back play, and Racing countered these moves by having Virimi Vakatawa and his midfield colleagues shoot up aggressively and either snaring Leinster in possession, forcing them to cut back infield, or pressurising them into throwing a poor pass:
The line speed and physicality from the Racing defence led to uncharacteristic handling errors from Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose, and while the latter made an important line break in the build-up to Isa Nacewa’s match-winning penalty, he was corralled by his opposite number for almost the full 80. Fortunately for Leinster, Sexton kept his cool, but opposing teams will now have a blueprint for how to nullify the Leinster attack that looked to be impossible to defend when they eviscerated Saracens and the Scarlets.
Hitting The Self-Destruct Button
The statistics from this game tell us that Racing made more of every type of mistake than Leinster, and as many coaches will tell you, in finals, the team that makes less mistakes usually wins. Racing missed more tackles, knocked the ball on more times and conceded more penalties, and in that respect, they were their own worst enemy. In a disjointed game, there were bound to be slip-ups, but the pick of the bunch has to be Teddy Thomas running into touch directly after his pack had stolen a lineout deep in their own half:
The Racing winger has developed a reputation for making blunders that are scarcely believable, and this one cost his team a European Cup. He wasn’t alone in getting the basics wrong; Leinster got a decent return from targeting Racing under the high ball (a worthwhile plan given the downpour that the San Mamés Stadium was subject to before and during the game), and that was largely due to the Racing players’ inability to compete in the air the ball with conviction:
Leinster weren’t perfect themselves; the penalties they gave away for high tackles and neck rolls won’t have gone unnoticed in the video review session, and neither will Isa Nacewa’s kicks out on the full, but overall, they were more accurate and composed on the day.
Joining The Pantheon And The Great White Hope Of Irish Rugby
It may have been a pig-ugly game, but you don’t get points for style in rugby. If Leinster had lost on Saturday by taking unnecessary risks, they would be criticised for not adapting to the conditions. It’s a lot to ask of a team to win a cup final by playing champagne rugby, and although Leinster’s performances in the 2011 and 2012 finals were aesthetically pleasing, it’s worth remembering that their maiden European trophy was won in a dogfight against the Leicester Tigers that, from a Leinster supporter’s perspective, was as painful to view as what took place at the weekend.
There’s no doubting that the game would have unfolded differently if Dan Carter had been fit to play, and Racing missing several key players definitely benefitted Leinster, but they played what was in front of them and won. Stuart Barnes made a big deal of the fact that Sexton attempted two long-range place-kicks that he wouldn’t normally consider, but that in and of itself was an example of Leinster’s astuteness.
They recognised the problems they were experiencing with their multi-phase attacks, and knew that a kick down the line probably wouldn’t bear fruit. You could call it a lack of self-belief, but good sides don’t pass up those chances when they’re on offer in tight matches, and even though Sexton missed those kicks, if he had nailed them, he and Leinster would have been lauded for being clinical.
Results are what really matter at the end of the day, and Leinster can rightfully take their place as one of the greatest clubs in the history of this competition. It must be noted the contribution that the previously maligned Stuart Lancaster has made to this squad’s success and Leo Cullen deserves praise, too, but this win was backboned by the magnificent James Ryan.
Having long been earmarked as a potential world class player and Ireland captain, Ryan is showing, in his first season of professional rugby, why they hype around him was warranted. To outplay Leone Nakarawa (the European Player of the Year) in a game of this magnitude is an astonishing achievement in and of itself, and if he can maintain this kind of form, there will be plenty more trophies for Leinster and Ireland in the near future.
P.S. It was fitting that Isa Nacewa kicked the winning penalty for Leinster. The versatile, Auckland-born back has been vital cog in all of their title wins in Europe, and will go down as arguably the most influential overseas player that an Irish club has ever signed. Consoling Teddy Thomas straight after the final whistle was a microcosm of the class and humility he has displayed throughout his career. It will be a long time before any of the four provinces are graced with the presence of a player who possesses the same skill, vision or leadership qualities as Nacewa, and sometimes, you just have to be grateful that a player like that was around in your lifetime.