By Phil Rice
European club rugby reaches its seasonal climax on Saturday with the final of the Champions Cup at the unlikely venue of San Mames Stadium (kick-off 5:45pm), home to Spanish football side Athletico Bilbao.
While spreading the gospel of rugby dictates the location, the quality of the stadium is certainly not in doubt. This will be the twenty-third European final and the first time it will be contested outside of the Six Nations.
Leinster will be bidding for their record equalling fourth success in the competition, joining one-time greats, Toulouse. Although the Irish side are favourites for the title, their opponents, Racing 92, are an outstanding outfit with match-winners wherever you look.
Leo Cullen’s team were so impressive in dismissing holders Saracens in the quarter-finals and Scarlets in the semi-finals, that the feeling is the men in blue are on a mission and are unlikely to be thwarted.
For Johnny Sexton at Leinster, read Maxime Machenaud at Racing. The diminutive scrum-half has dictated matters for the French side throughout the competition. Not only has he sparked the opportunities for his talented back division, but his place kicking has been flawless throughout.
Catastrophe then last week when their talismanic captain tore his hamstring and is unavailable for the final. The heartbeat of the side will be missing.
There can be no disguising the enormity of his departure. Not only is he an outstanding player but he is the orchestrator and prime motivator of the team. He is Racing’s Sexton.
Before the French side’s chances are written off, however, we should recall the other strengths of this excellent team.
Teddy Thomas almost single handedly destroyed Munster in the semi-final. He scored two tries and effectively another, as he handed the ball to Machenaud to touch down for the third try in a 20-minute start to the match that effectively eliminated any chance Munster had of progressing.
It was also Thomas who waltzed through Ireland’s defence to score the try that necessitated Sexton’s heroic last-minute drop goal in Paris earlier this year.
They have a speedy and muscular back division that will require absolute concentration from Ireland’s midfield duo of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose.
While Leinster’s Fergus McFadden will miss the final after being ruled out for the season with a hamstring injury, scrum half Luke McGrath is expected to recover from injury in time to play.
If that is the case, New Zealander James Lowe is likely to take his place opposite Thomas, on the left wing. The speedy Lowe has been a try scoring machine for Leinster since his arrival this year and his committed, all-action style has made him a real favourite with the RDS faithful.
However, on occasion he has committed himself too soon in defence and can miss the odd tackle as a result. He will need to be at his best to contain the barnstorming Thomas.
Teddy Iribaren, Machenaud’s likely replacement, is no slouch either and is also a very capable place-kicker. Another jewel in the Racing crown is Fijian second-row Leone Nakarawa.
The Olympic gold medallist was named in the world dream team after the last World Cup and since his recruitment from Glasgow Warriors last season, Nakarawa has been the driving force in Racing’s mobile pack. For such a big man his agility around the pitch is exceptional.
So Leinster will rest on their laurels at their peril. But the management team of the Dublin side are nothing if not professional and they learned much from their failures at the penultimate stages of both the Champions Cup and Pro12 last season.
Sexton was like a man possessed during the Saracens and Scarlets matches, and we can expect the same against his old teammates in the Racing side.
While Leinster will want to turnover their great rivals Munster, in their eagerly awaited Guinness Pro14 semi-final on May 19, there is no question that getting back on the European podium this weekend is easily their highest priority.
Despite their superb form this season, failure to bring back the European crown would be devastating for these highly driven professionals.
Sexton, Rob Kearney, Sean Cronin, Isa Nacewa and Devin Toner are approaching the twilight of their careers and they know how demanding it is to reach the pinnacle of European club rugby, and there are no guarantees of further chances.
Should they succeed in their conquest the management task of curbing their celebrations may call on all of Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s experience. Taking on Munster has traditionally not required too much motivational speech-making for Leinster and the professionalism of this team should be more than enough to cope.
But that’s for next week, this week Sexton and his teammates will certainly be focused and ought to bring home the spoils.