Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# Tense
Legendary Nacewa secures Leinster's fourth Champions Cup crown in Bilbao
The 35-year-old took over place-kicking duties from Johnny Sexton to secure Leinster’s title.

Leinster 15

Racing 12

Murray Kinsella reports from San Mamés

IT WAS FAR more tense than most predictions has suggested, sickeningly so, with Racing 92 delivering a superb performance that they deserve huge credit for, but Leinster got over the line for their fourth Champions Cup success.

Fittingly, it was the soon-to-retire Isa Nacewa who guided them home, taking over place-kicking duties from Johnny Sexton to slot two penalties in the closing 10 minutes and finally take Leinster in front of a gritty, physical and hard-working Racing team.

Isa Nacewa kicks a penalty Billy Stickland / INPHO Nacewa guided Leinster home. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

In the process, Nacewa became one of four Leinster players – Sexton, Cian Healy and Devin Toner being the others – to have been part of the squad for each of their Champions Cup success, and he will depart with his legendary status secured for the rest of the province’s history.

The winning penalty, struck from under the posts, broke Racing’s hearts but they should take pride in the manner in which they made Leinster fight until the final seconds, even missing with a last-gasp drop goal attempt after Nacewa’s second penalty.

Racing had the misfortune to see out-half Pat Lambie depart injured in just the fourth minute, that coming after replacement Dan Carter had been forced to pull out due to a hamstring injury.

France international Remi Tales, who was not supposed to be involved at all, was sprung from the bench to play 76 minutes.

Racing had, of course, also lost scrum-half, place-kicker and captain Maxime Machenaud to injury before the game but his replacement, Teddy Iribaren, was superb in a composed and skillful performance at scrum-half.

But Leinster had just enough to overcome the French power and defensive organisation, with the sensational 21-year-old James Ryan leading from the front with another incredibly physical performance, the likes of Dan Leavy never far behind him.

Racing ran out for the game wearing berets in a nod to Le Show Bizz era – Donnacha Ryan looked the part – and although this final was short on flashy play in the wet conditions at San Mamés, no one could take their eyes off the contest.

The victory for Leinster ensures that Leo Cullen becomes the first man to win the competition as a player and a coach, his work alongside Stuart Lancaster having been a key element of the province’s journey towards closing what has been a six-year gap since their 2012 title.

Rob Kearney and Teddy Iribaren James Crombie / INPHO Teddy Iribaren had a superb start after taking Maxime Machenaud's place. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Racing’s fierce lineout competition was evident from the opening minute as Ryan almost forced a steal on the Leinster throw, as the French side made an excellent start despite the early blow of losing Lambie.

The out-half was injured in the process of making a linebreak, jarring his knee as he side-stepped after getting outside Robbie Henshaw. In that same passage, Garry Ringrose hammered into a high tackle on Virimi Vakatawa and Iribaren cooly slotted the penalty from wide on the right.

A brilliant set-piece attack from Leinster led to their opening points just before the quarter mark, with the tireless Leavy making yards initially before they bounced back against the grain and freed captain Nacewa to burst to within 10 metres of the Racing tryline, hauled down from behind by Teddy Thomas.

Leinster powered infield through their forwards and Racing edged offside, allowing Sexton to make it 3-3.

Scott Fardy dragged down a promising Racing maul soon after and Iribaren – whose kicking from the base of the ruck was superb in the opening half – again popped over the three points.

Frustration followed for Leinster’s attack as the meaty Racing defence stood up impressively, one multi-phase passage ending due to a neck roll by Fardy on the outstanding Chat.

In the 32nd minute, an explosive carry from James Ryan helped Leinster to a penalty as Racing again crept offside and Sexton declined a shot at goal, appearing set to go to the right corner.

Jonathan Sexton and Dan Leavy James Crombie / INPHO The first-half was a brutal and compelling affair. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Instead, he tapped the penalty and Leinster surged at Racing from 10 metres out but Chat immediately pounced for a brilliant breakdown turnover penalty to lift the pressure.

Leinster had one more opportunity before the break but Racing’s Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa blatantly slapped down Luke McGrath’s pass after the initial lineout attack.

A yellow should have followed, particularly because it was the third such offence from Racing, but referee Wayne Barnes kept his cards in his pocket and Leinster had to be content with Sexton’s three points that levelled a compelling game at 6-6 for the half-time break.

Leinster were poor in the third quarter as the piled error upon error – Nacewa twice kicking into touch on the full, Dan Leavy and Jordi Murphy conceding penalties and Johnny Sexton shanking a long-range penalty low and well wide.

In between, Iribaren knocked over his third place-kick of the day after some dominant carrying from the impressive Leinster pack.

Leinster did recover their composure, however, and Racing’s discipline began to slip.

Loosehead Eddy Ben Arous kicked the ball away after a penalty against his propping partner Cedate Gomes Sa, allowing Sexton to redeem himself and level the game again.

James Ryan wins the line out from Donnacha Ryan James Crombie / INPHO James Ryan was immense for Leinster yet again. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

But Sexton’s next effort, also from long-range, snuck just wide to the right in the 58th minute, this time after Wenceslas Lauret was caught offside.

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The expectation before this game had been that the final quarter would be Leinster’s time to thrive but it began disappointingly for them as the error count grew further, number eight Murphy knocking on as Cullen’s side attacked in the Racing half.

Leavy, bandaged around the head from a first-half collision with Chat, was then pinged by Barnes for a high tackle on Chavancy, providing Iribaren with a penalty shot from 47 metres out that he sent off target to the left of the posts.

The sickening tension rose even further.

Racing worked their way back into the Leinster 22 as the final 10 minutes approached but after a series of excellent phases, they dallied at the base of a ruck and Leinster were able to snaffle possession and hack clear.

But the French side, expected to dip late on, earned yet another penalty when their maul was dragged down by replacement Andrew Porter, just on for Tadhg Furlong.

Garry Ringrose is tackled by Census Johnston Billy Stickland / INPHO Leinster struggled to break down the Racing defence for long periods. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Iribaren, left-footed, was wide on the right but again showed his mental steel to calmly convert and take Racing out to 12-9 with just nine minutes remaining.

Leinster needed something special and responded well, as Ringrose and Fardy combined down the right with sub scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, the momentum stopped by Racing coming offside yet again.

Nacewa took over the place-kicking responsibility from Sexton, who had taken some treatment on the pitch in the second half, and slotted the three points to equalise as the game entered the final five minutes.

He held his nerve again from underneath the sticks when Ringrose’s break – just after Thomas made a huge error of judgement in attempting to run out of his own 22 – again lured Racing into creeping offside with just two minutes left, Tales pinged, and Leinster survived Tales’ late, long-range drop goal attempt to spark the celebrations.

Leinster scorers:

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [3 from 5], Isa Nacewa [2 from 2]

Racing scorers:

Penalties: Teddy Iribaren [4 from 5]

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (captain); Johnny Sexton,  Luke McGrath (Jamison Gibson-Park ’62); Cian Healy (Jack McGrath ’55), Seán Cronin (James Tracy ’62), Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter ’66); Devin Toner, James Ryan; Scott Fardy, Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy (Jack Conan ’62).

Replacements not used: Rhys Ruddock, Joey Carbery, Rory O’Loughlin.

RACING 92: Louis Dupichot (HIA – Joe Rokocoko ’30 to ’38); Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Henry Chavancy, Marc Andreu; Pat Lambie (Remi Tales ’3), Teddy Iribaren; Eddy Ben Arous (Vasil Kakovin ’55), Camille Chat (HIA – Ole Avei ’45 to 55, permanent ’59), Cedate Gomes Sa (Census Johnston ’55); Donnacha Ryan, Leone Nakarawa; Wenceslas Lauret, Bernard Le Roux (Baptiste Chouzenoux ’69), Yannick Nyanga (captain)

Replacements not used: Boris Palu, Antoine Gibert.

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

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