Analysis: How Leinster dug out the win in a compelling final five minutes

The Champions Cup final came down to the very death in Bilbao but Leinster found a way.

WITH FIVE MINUTES to go, Teddy Iribaren sent another of his long box kicks into Leinster territory.

With the Champions Cup final poised at 12-12, it looked as though the Irish province would have to build from deep to find a winning score – as Ireland had done against France in the Six Nations.

While there was to be a drop-goal attempt in this European decider, it came only after Isa Nacewa had popped over the winning points off the tee.

Here’s how Leinster managed to squeeze out the win at the end of a ferocious and compelling encounter in Bilbao.

Barnes gives Leinster an ‘in’

Iribaren’s kicking game was exceptional on Saturday and he finds a pocket of space behind Johnny Sexton in this instance.

Rob Kearney’s positional play and work rate in the backfield is something we’ve discussed recently and he shows his value once again here, sprinting hard across the pitch to field Iribaren’s kick before it can bounce.


Kearney immediately straightens upfield and dummies a pass to Nacewa, who has worked back to his left.

Racing centre Virimi Vakatawa and back row Wenceslas Lauret lie in wait for Kearney as he returns the kick.


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Vakatawa engages around Kearney’s left leg, while Lauret looks to pull Kearney’s upper body to ground, hoping to then release and jackal over the ball for a possible turnover.

Referee Wayne Barnes almost immediately blows his whistle for the penalty, however, indicating that Vakatawa has lifted Kearney’s leg beyond the horizontal.

There is no verbal communication at all, but Barnes lifts his right arm to indicate his decision.


Vakatawa is clearly attempting to show that there was nothing deliberate in his actions and the penalty does feel harsh on review.

Is there enough here to justify the call?


Vakatawa does lift Kearney’s above the horizontal, even if the Leinster fullback’s momentum into the tackle accentuates the effect.

With Lauret also guiding Kearney to ground with his left hand on his back, he lands in a potentially dangerous position.


To be fair to Vakatawa, he immediately releases from the tackle when he recognises that Kearney is in this position…


… but Barnes has already seen enough and penalises the Racing centre.

Some – this writer included – will definitely feel that this is a harsh penalty but it provides Leinster with a crucial chance to gain a foothold in the Racing half and throw into the lineout.

Barnes’ decision gives them their ‘in’.

Sexton’s line kick

There are so many details that go into making Johnny Sexton’s performances for Leinster and Ireland influential, and his line kick in this instance is a prime example.


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Sexton is very tight to the touchline and while it’s the ‘good’ side for a right-footed kicker to find a little extra distance, he does well to eke out a handsome return with his kick.

Sexton’s line kicking is often underappreciated – television directors sometimes even miss them in favour of replays – and while this isn’t his most spectacular effort ever, he composes himself to find good distance and take Leinster up to within 30 metres of Racing’s tryline.

Nakarawa’s intervention

The next job for Leinster is ensuring they win clean lineout ball, a particularly demanding task coming towards the end of what has been a riveting and hard-fought battle out of touch with Racing.

Leinster opt for a full seven-man lineout involving all of their forwards – apart from hooker James Tracy, obviously – with props Jack McGrath and Andrew Porter setting up early and the rest of them walking in calmly.


The diagram below gives us a better idea of how the teams are set up when they are actually in the lineout.


As we discussed before the game, Racing have a host of strong defensive lineout jumpers and they are well matched up here, with Leone Nakarawa [5], Donnacha Ryan [4], Yannick Nyanga [8], Baptiste Chouzenoux [20] and Wenceslas Lauret [6] all excellent at getting into the air.

From Leinster’s point of view, there are frontline jumping options in James Ryan [5], Devin Toner [4] and Scott Fardy [6].

Jack Conan [20] is less known as a lineout specialist but he did win nine lineouts over the course of the Champions Cup and is another option here.

The least obvious option of all is Dan Leavy [circled below] who, despite insisting he doesn’t deserve the slagging of his team-mates for a lack of lineout skills, had won just a single lineout in the Champions Cup before this moment.


We can see Nakarawa marking up opposite Leavy, aware that Leinster may play it safe and go for the ‘banker’ ball at the front of the lineout – even though Leavy is not a regular target for their throws.

Nakarawa, a superb lineout forward, taps Census Johnston [18] on the shoulder, indicating to him to get ready to lift at the front.


Johnston responds and sets himself a little lower.


Leavy will obviously need a lift at the back too, with Ryan tucked in behind him but facing upfield, therefore leaving open the possibility of the second row turning towards the rear of the lineout if Leinster throw there.

Donnacha Ryan is opposite him and has to account for the Leinster lock’s actions, mirroring his movement or reading it as dummy movement.


Racing’s brilliant lineout sense comes up trumps once again here, as James Ryan turns towards Leavy to lift him at the rear, with Donnacha Ryan reacting swiftly to do the same for Nakarawa.

It means a direct one-on-one contest at the front of the lineout and Nakarawa comes up trumps.


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We can see above how the rest of the Leinster pack are coming towards the front of the lineout as the throw is released, the intention either being to set a maul and test Racing that way, or tie in their forwards with a dummy maul.

But the explosive and intelligent Nakarawa has read them superbly and his huge left hand bats the ball away in a basketball-style rejection, falling into the hands of scrum-half Iribaren and seemingly denying Leinster a prime shot at earning the winning points.

Thomas’ error of judgement

“It was the wrong decision,” said Racing coach Laurent Labit of what happened next.

Indeed, Labit repeated himself three times to underline the severity of the error that followed Nakarawa’s excellent lineout steal.

The opportunity for Racing to steady themselves, kick clear into the Leinster half and apply pressure there was obvious but Teddy Thomas inexplicably opted to go on a risky run.


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The obvious thing for Thomas to do is carry hard at Leinster just in behind the lineout, using his acceleration, footwork and power to get a good gainline and set up a strong position for Racing to build towards a kick.

Instead, he steps back towards the touchline and beyond Leinster’s Tracy, but there is simply nothing on in that channel.

Even still, Thomas doesn’t seem to realise the danger and attempts to beat the waiting Conan.

Thomas throws up his left arm to fend, but Conan shows clever technique to slap it down with his right…


… before wrapping him up in the tackle and putting him into touch.

“I potentially thought I was going to tackle him high because there was a lot of that, those kind of seat-belt tackles, and people got done for it,” said Conan.

“He tried to fend me off and I blocked him down and luckily got underneath his arm. It was legal and it was low but it was on the verge.”

Getting tackled needlessly into touch at any time is seen as sinful and selfish by most rugby teams and the exasperation from Racing here is clear in Nakarawa’s incredulous reaction.


Having earned the steal, the Fijian lock now has to face another defensive lineout.

Leavy part deux

With the game now well into its 77th minute, Leinster go for a full seven-man lineout again but with some key differences.

Conan [20] and Toner [4] have swapped positions in the lineout.


James Ryan [5] has also moved further away from Leavy [7] at the front of the lineout, with himself and Conan setting up as if to lift Toner.

That, in turn, draws Nakarawa [5] back and away from Leavy, in order to give the Fijian a chance to lift Donnacha Ryan [4] if Leinster do throw to Toner.

It’s a simple tweak but it leaves Leavy essentially unmarked at the front this time, making a throw to him much more sensible.


Of course, Leavy still needs a lift from behind and the man to provide that is James Ryan, who Toner sets in motion with a slight shove.

Because Donnacha Ryan is set up just in front of Toner, ready to jump, he can’t get an early read on that, while Nakarawa is already crouched and ready to lift Donnacha Ryan, so he can’t react well either.

With James Ryan getting across the ground swiftly and combining with McGrath for a good lift, it all means that Leavy wins the ball – just his second in the Champions Cup overall – completely uncontested.


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The pop off the top to scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park is clean and although winning the lineout at the front is not always ideal, Leinster’s backs are ready to strike.

Ringrose’s dart

With Leinster winning the lineout at the front, it’s a good opportunity for Racing’s backline to be aggressive in defence but they produce an error that Leinster exploit perfectly.


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As Sexton receives the ball from Gibson-Park he has a number of options.

He has Robbie Henshaw [12] available short to his right, while Garry Ringrose is running a flatter line wider out.


Nacewa [11] is also tucked in behind and Racing must consider him too, with the possibility of Sexton pulling a deeper pass behind Henshaw to the Leinster left wing arcing behind and outside Henshaw.

As always, there is always the prospect of Sexton running himself and there are few out-halves who consistently offer this threat even when passing as well as Sexton does.

Sexton’s first few steps here are threateningly upfield at the Racing defence, with his hips square up the pitch even as he passes to Ringrose.


That body shape from Sexton poses a threat to Racing out-half Remi Tales, who we have circled below, pointing directly at Sexton.


Sexton’s dart at the line holds Tales onto the Leinster 10, meaning he doesn’t feel comfortable drifting off Sexton.

In an absolutely ideal world, Tales might have been able to drift outwards to deal with Henshaw [blue below], leaving hooker Olei Avei coming from the lineout to mark Sexton [yellow], and allowing Henry Chavancy to tackle Ringrose [red].


But Sexton’s threat holds Tales onto him and that means Chavancy, who also has to worry about Nacewa in behind, can’t drift wider either.

The truly damaging aspect for Racing defensively is the position of Vakatawa, who has become totally disconnected from Chavancy.

Even as Leinster launch off the lineout – when Racing know they need to be aggressive against ball won at the front – Vakatawa is trailing behind and set up too wide off Chavancy.


We analysed the tendency of Racing’s centres to get disconnected off set-pieces in the build-up to their semi-final win over Munster and while it didn’t show up damagingly that day, it’s extremely costly here.

We can see above that Vakatawa is already outside Ringrose in the shot above and the Leinster centre accentuates that even further with a typically subtle and smart running line.


Ringrose initially moves slightly outfield and away from Sexton before arcing back infield and straightening himself at the last second to get outside Chavancy and inside Vakatawa.

Whatever about Ringrose’s line, Vakatawa has to react better in this instance.

When an out-half goes as hard at the line as Sexton is here, it’s a good cue to get aggressive in defence.

Sexton, despite his skills, is going to find it hard to fire a long pass moving at such speed towards the line.

There is still the option to go out the back to Nacewa but even in that case, Vakatawa should be far more aggressive here.


The Racing outside centre did a superb job of shutting down Leinster’s attempts to move the ball to the wide channels on other occasions during this game and required a similar level of concentration and aggression here to shut them down.

With Tales and Chavancy held tight, Vakatawa needs to react and close in on Ringrose but by the time he does, Sexton has already fired a superb pass to his centre.


Though Vakatawa does get to Ringrose, he cannot get a shoulder into the tackle and instead is stretching with his arms.


Having built up speed on his running line and demonstrating great balance and fight, Ringrose is able to drag Vakatawa upfield for a gain of more than 10 metres before he is grounded.

Tales offside

There was a high penalty count in this Champions Cup final, but Leinster came out on the right side of a 15-11 tally overall.

High tackles were a major focus for Barnes – there were five penalties in that area alone – but Racing’s offside line was another hot area.

The French side were penalised for being offside no less than five times and the penalty in this instance was most costly of all.


Tales is the guilty party on this occasion.

The call comes from assistant referee Tom Foley, who tells Barnes, “Racing [number] 22, never onside. Racing 22, never onside”. Barnes indicates the penalty advantage before his other assistant, JP Doyle, says, “Agree.”

Leinster look for an advantage, with Sexton opting against a possible drop-goal effort under pressure from Iribaren before he chips ahead only to be beaten in the air by Chavancy.

Barnes brings play back for the penalty.

Nacewa’s three

Leinster captain Nacewa couldn’t have asked for an easier shot at goal to score his final European points for Leinster.

While Barnes tells him he has until 78:41 on the match clock to kick the penalty, Nacewa doesn’t feel like grinding another 20 seconds out of it and pops the points over by 78:21.


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The match clock means Leinster still have to receive the restart and retain possession until it ticks into the red, but there is more drama to come.

Restart failure

Had Leinster gone on to lose this game, the failure to gather in Racing’s restart would have rankled with them for as long as anything else.

Controlling restarts is vital in rugby at any time but all the more so in circumstances like this.


As we can see above, Leinster opt to keep five players in the backfield, even though it is almost 100% certain that Racing will attempt to go short and reclaim the ball.

Leinster do have four receiving pods of one catcher and one lifter set up for short restarts to either side, as indicated in red below.


However, directly in the centre of the pitch is Henshaw [white above] on his own.

It gives Racing an obvious target and allows them to create a direct one-on-one between Henshaw and the taller Chouzenoux, who can run onto the ball.


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The kick from Tales is perfect, hanging for three full seconds and allowing Chouzenoux to get in underneath, but even one extra player in this central zone could have made a difference.

There is no one impeding the progress of the Racing chasers to give Henshaw a little more time and space to claim the ball.

Even if Leinster insist on leaving one player in this area of the pitch, fullback Kearney would perhaps have been a better choice.

As it is, Leinster are forced to defend.

Two minutes of defence

Racing end up going through 14 phases of attack before Tales’ drop-goal attempt and Leinster limit them to only around 15 metres of total gain after the reclaim of their restart.

Vakatawa makes one damaging surge wide on the right, while Lauret makes big yards thanks to strong latching from Chavancy and Chouzenoux, but Leinster show off major work rate, physicality and determination to limit the progress overall.

Tackle/tackle assist count in final passage:

James Ryan 3

James Tracy 3

Scott Fardy 3

Jack McGrath 3

Andrew Porter 3

Devin Toner 3

Jack Conan 2

Dan Leavy 2

Robbie Henshaw 2

It’s a collective effort but there are highlights in this frenetic passage.

Ryan Porter

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Above, we see James Ryan delivering one of his typically smart tackles just after Fardy and Toner have hit Lauret behind the gainline.

Nyanga opts for the swift pick and go, but Ryan dives in low, showing his technical quality to drop to Nyanga’s ankles and immobilise him, allowing Porter to hammer in on his upper body and then slow the ball after the tackle.

Below, Conan shows good awareness to hunt from the inside and cover a Nakarawa offload.

Conan has just thumped Vasil Kakovin on the previous phase before the prop offloads to Vakatawa, who is smothered by McGrath.


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Nakarawa shows his attacking ability here to step inside Henshaw and then offload out of the tackle of McGrath and Leavy to the supporting Chavancy, who Conan drives into and wrestles to the ground.

Racing work back across the pitch to the right, where Vakatawa’s footwork and pace on the outside allow him to make good yards before Fardy tackles him low.

As the French side work infield, Leinster are perhaps a little lucky not to get penalised.


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Hooker Tracy hammers into the tackle aggressively on Nakarawa – one of his three tackles in this passage - while Toner wraps the Racing lock up high on his upper body.

Toner’s left arm appears to slip up around Nakarawa’s neck during the contest, which very nearly becomes a choke tackle.


As the tackle goes to ground, we can see that Toner has bound onto Nakarawa’s right forearm, perhaps giving the impression of being around the neck.


Barnes is in the perfect position to assess whether there is contact around the neck and given his desire not to have any neck or head contact in this game, he would surely have penalised this incident if it was clear-cut.

A big surge from Laurent a phase later, with two good latches, allows him to dominate the next tackle and Racing find themselves within decent range for a drop goal.

Le drop

The attempt comes but it’s worth looking at a couple of factors in it failing.


We can see Tales set up in the pocket in the shot above, but Iribaren and Racing opt to carry for another phase in a bid to eke out another metre or two.

Nakarawa is the man to carry and with Lauret and Donnacha Ryan – on his bad shoulder – latching on, he manages to fight for that little bit of advantage line.

Last Carry

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Deciding when to go for a drop goal can sometimes be as important as actually kicking it and the halfbacks need to be very decisive.

Racing’s forwards are highly fatigued by the time Nakarawa makes this carry.

Although his incredibly calm demeanour was a major strength for Iribaren up until this point, it becomes something of a drawback in this passage.

With Nakarawa getting a gainline nudge on and Tales in the pocket, Iribaren needs to be onto the scene without delay after the Fijian’s carry if they’re going to kick now.


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Instead, as we can see above, Iribaren is strolling casually over to the ruck, assessing his options and deciding whether now is a good time to hit Tales or whether he needs to take another phase.

Of course, the out-half has a big part to play in this decision but we can also see above how much time Leinster get to organise themselves for the possible charge-down on Tales.

More than six seconds after Nakarawa has been tackled, Iribaren finally turns to fire his pass to Tales.

As we saw in Ireland’s win over France in the Six Nations, the quality of the pass is vitally important and Iribaren is fractionally off with his effort.


As indicated above, Tales has to step slightly to his left to gather the ball.

He’s a right-footed kicker and that means he also now has to readjust to his right to get an ideal drop of the ball and strike. Split seconds make a difference.

With the delay at the ruck, we can also see that Leinster have got an extremely strong block-down line coming at Tales as he moves into his drop-kick process.


While Tales is focused on dropping the ball straight and making a good connection, his peripheral vision will have picked up this fast-advancing quintet of Leinster players – Porter, Ryan, Conan, Fardy and Gibson-Park.

It’s likely that in those split seconds, his brain is calculating that he needs to lift the ball a little higher than he otherwise might have.

The combined effect of all of these factors costs Tales the accuracy.


As we can see above, Tales has leant back and opened up his upper body while striking the ball in a bid to ensure it clears the fingertips of Ryan and co.

The ball is misdirected wide to the left and Leinster’s celebrations can begin after a truly nailbiting endgame leaves them with a fourth Champions Cup trophy.

Rémi Talés fails to score a last minute drop goal Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

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