PREVIEW: Leinster v Racing 92
CHAMPIONS CUP FINAL: Spain becomes the sixth country to host Europe’s showpiece club match when Leinster Rugby take on Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final on Saturday.
Leinster are aiming to equal Toulouse’s record of four European Cup wins on the back of a glittering campaign which has seen the Irish province defeat Champions Cup holders, Saracens, Premiership holders, Exeter Chiefs, last season’s PRO12 winners, Scarlets, as well as Montpellier, the number one-ranked club at the conclusion of the TOP 14 regular season.
Racing, meanwhile, are bidding to become the 12th name on the roll of honour of the tournament widely recognised as The One to Win in club rugby. This will be the French club’s second Champions Cup final in three seasons, and on the last occasion they contested a final in Spain, they memorably captured the 2016 French Championship in Barcelona.
The legendary New Zealand star, Dan Carter, is also looking to add the one piece of silverware to his collection that has eluded him to date before bowing out of European rugby.
Carter, now 36-years-old, racked up a world record 1 598 points in 112 Tests for the All Blacks, with a winning percentage of 88.4 percent.
The former Crusader has two Rugby World Cups to his name and is an icon in world rugby, but humility remains his calling card, with Racing still in the hunt for the Top 14 title.
"You're never too experienced to practice the fundamentals of the game," Carter tweeted Thursday alongside a photo of him passing a ball in training.
The Kiwi will hope to have a more successful run-out at Bilbao's San Mames stadium than he did for Racing in the 2016 final in Lyon won by Saracens.
Carter risked a calf injury for that match, a move that badly backfired as he limped off early in the second half having been outplayed by Owen Farrell.
Carter is likely to start on the bench on Saturday, Springbok Pat Lambie having been given the nod for the No.10 shirt.
"It's really nice to have him on the same side and to have trained and played with him, seen how he does things and speak to him about the game and life outside rugby as well," Lambie told AFP of a player who will head for a club career in Japan at the end of this season.
"These are his last games - there's a lot to play for. I know this is a huge desire of his to win the Champions Cup and I'm sure he wants to win the Top 14 again as well,"
Lambie and Carter will be up against a strong Leinster team marshalled by Jonny Sexton, an influential game-breaker who will no doubt be the target of some early 10-12 channel charges by Racing forwards.
Leinster are unbeaten in European competition this season, with eight wins from eight including an impressive 30-19 quarter-final victory over 2017 winners Saracens and a 38-16 defeat of Scarlets in the last four.
"We were pretty clinical [against Scarlets] but I like to think we have another gear in us," said Leinster flank Dan Leavy.
"We looked at each other in the changing room after the Scarlets match and thought we could go to the next level.
"Racing are a great team and are packed full of big names. The strength in depth is incredible and they have the best defence in the Top 14.
"If we are going to beat them, we will need to find that extra gear against them,"
Players to watch:
For Leinster: Australian Scott Fardy has been a revelation for the Irish side, the Wallaby's performance throughout the season has put him in contention for the European player of the year. Flyhalf Johnny Sexton is always a huge threat to any opposition, not only does his lethal kicking sets the tone for the match, he always possessed the prowess to score tries boasting with four in six matches this season.
For Racing 92: France wing Teddy Thomas can be a huge headache for the Leinster outwide, in six matches the wing has beaten a total of 22 defenders and produced 10 clean breaks. Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa has been a standout performance for his side and comes Saturday it will be no different. He boasts with 111 carries in eight matches and tops the offload standings with 20.
Prediction: This will be the third meeting between the clubs with Leinster winning both pool stage encounters in 2010/11, each by a margin of more than 15 points. Leinster will equal Toulouse’s record of four European Cup titles if they are victorious in Bilbao. Racing 92 have reached the Champions Cup final for the second time in the last three years. They were runners-up to Saracens in Lyon in 2016. With eight wins to date, Leinster could emulate Saracens’ record of nine in a Champions Cup-winning season. Johnny Sexton played eight times for Racing 92 in the European Cup between 2013 and 2015 scoring 56 points. Leinster have averaged 3.8 tries per game this season, more than any other side, while only Munster (1.5) have conceded fewer five-pointers on average than Leinster or Racing (both 1.8). Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Devin Toner were all in Leinster’s match day squads in their three Champions Cup finals to date, while Head Coach Leo Cullen also started as captain in each of those victories. Leone Nakarawa has made 20 offloads this season, eight more than any other player, and 14 more than any other player who could feature in the final. He is also the only player from either of these clubs to have played the maximum 640 minutes this season. Johnny Sexton (21/24) has an 88% goalkicking success rate in the Champions Cup this season, the same as Racing’s injured place kicker Maxime Machenaud (29/33). Sexton has succeeded with 11/11 kicks in the knockout stage so far, landing seven conversions and four penalties. Luke McGrath has made six try assists in the Champions Cup this season, more than any other player. Leinster will win this by six points.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Isa Nacewa (captain), 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Rhys Ruddock, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Rory O’Loughlin.
Racing 92: 15 Louis Dupichot, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Marc Andreu, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Teddy Iribaren, 8 Yannick Nyanga, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Cedate Gomes Sa, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Ole Avei, 17 Vasil Kakovin, 18 Census Johnston, 19 Boris Palu, 20 Baptiste Chouzenoux, 21 Antoine Gibert, 22 Dan Carter, 23 Joe Rokocoko.
Date: Saturday, May 12
Venue: San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao
Expected weather: It will be partly cloudy with a couple of afternoon showers. There will be a high of 12°C and a low of 7°C.
Kick-off: 17.45 (16.45 UK & Ireland time; 15.45 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Tom Foley (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
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