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Leinster plan on saving best for last as they bid for fourth European star

Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa believe there is still more to come from their team.

Murray Kinsella reports from Bilbao

JOHNNY SEXTON LET his mind wander a little bit this week.

His train of thought during some of the quieter, more nervous moments led him down a track that touched on his motivation to win the Champions Cup for the soon-to-retire Leinster legend and captain Isa Nacewa.

To win it for the injured Sean O’Brien and others who are missing out. Win it because Leinster haven’t lifted the European trophy since 2012, too long ago.

Jonathan Sexton Johnny Sexton at San Mamés yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They’re the things that drag you off during the week, that get you dreaming and get you thinking about things that you shouldn’t be thinking about,” said Sexton yesterday in Bilbao, ahead of today’s Champions Cup final against Racing 92 [KO 4.45pm Irish time, Sky Sports/BT Sport].

Even at the age of 32, Sexton still suffers with nerves, as many of his team-mates will have done this week too.

Heavy favourites for today’s final, Leinster will have eased their worries with the belief that, even after seriously impressive wins over Montpellier, Glasgow, Exeter, Saracens and the Scarlets, they still have another level to go to.

“We talked before Scarlets and Saracens about taking a step and we did that,” said captain Nacewa. “I’ve said it many times – it was a pretty lonely place losing a semi-final [against Clermont], you learn a lot about yourself.

“It was about building on that in the last 12 months. We know we have to go to another level, we have to against such a world-class team.”

There is a sense that Racing are being underestimated before this final, as they were before the semi-final win against Munster, but Leinster’s analysis has shown them a team that is capable of a major upset if the Irish province are not at their best.

Nacewa will have the rather tricky task of marking the sizzlingly dangerous Teddy Thomas on one wing, with Leinster’s captain calling the France international a “game-breaker.”

The offloading, ball-carrying, lineout giant Leone Nakarawa is another of Racing’s game-breakers, while the hot-stepping and powerful-fending Virimi Vakatawa will need to be closely watched too.

PointDifference Source: The42

Donnacha Ryan is all graft and set-piece intelligence, Camille Chat and Eddy Ben Arous are abrasive and destructive, while the evergreen captain Yannick Nyanga and his back row partners Bernard le Roux and Wenceslas Lauret are superb in the tackle and at lineout time.

They can afford to leave Argentinian flyer Juan Imhoff out of their squad altogether and Racing even have the great Dan Carter in reserve, backing up Springbok out-half Pat Lambie.

“He changed the course of the quarter-final for them against Clermont and the game changed a lot when he came on against Munster,” said Sexton of Carter.

“He’s still obviously a world-class player and I’m sure he will be keen to make an impact when he does come on.”

The one major presence that Racing will miss, though, is that of scrum-half and place-kicker Maxime Machenaud, the heartbeat of this team on both sides of the ball and through his captaincy.

His replacement, the daring Teddy Iribaren, is a danger around the fringes of rucks, but he is not of the same class as Machenaud, whose composure and combativeness will be almost impossible to replace.

Leinster, on the other hand, looks in ideal condition aside from missing O’Brien, whose absence hasn’t been all that noticeable given the stunning form of Dan Leavy.

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster opted to leave James Lowe out of their squad in favour of having Jamison Gibson-Park provide bench cover for Luke McGrath, who is just back from injury.

Even without Lowe and the unfortunately injured Fergus McFadden, Leinster can still call on the talent of Jordan Larmour on their right wing.

Set-Piece Source: The42

Already a Grand Slam winner, Larmour now has the chance to win a first Champions Cup at the age of 20. As part of the new wave of freakish Leinster talent alongside the likes of lock James Ryan and openside Leavy, these are heady heights for Larmour to start his career at.

“They’ve played some very big games over the last year, haven’t they?” said Sexton of the young guns. “And they’ve done really well, so there are no worries from that end. Those guys will fit into the team, the lads will bring what they’ve brought all season, I’m sure.

“I think they thrive in these occasions rather go into their shell.”

Sexton’s game management, kicking quality and defensive might will be pivotal for Leinster, and there is experience across the board to go along with the youthful explosiveness.

The out-half, Nacewa, Healy and Devin Toner are all in line to win a fourth Champions Cup medal, while head coach Cullen could become the first person to win the competition as a player and a coach. Their knowledge of what it takes will be important.

Racing’s tendency in this Champions Cup has been to start superbly and often blow teams away in the first quarter, something Leinster have been preparing for since they capitulated in the opening 15 minutes of last season’s semi-final defeat to Clermont to leave themselves trailing 15-0.

Memories of that failure will keep them sharp and energetic early on today and if they can ride out the first 20 minutes, then Leinster’s well-proven scoring power just before and after half-time should leave them in a strong position to win.

Lineouts Source: The42

Racing’s lineout defence, with Nakarawa, Ryan, Nyanga, Le Roux and Lauret all capable of jumping well, not to mention Baptiste Chouzenoux off the bench, will test Leinster with aggression.

But if Leinster’s lineout caller Toner, along with Ryan and the grizzled and subtly brilliant Scott Fardy, can manage that threat and provide clean ball, Sexton and co. look very capable of cutting Racing with their starter plays.

When they have got onto the front foot, Leinster’s comfort through long passages of phase play has been evident throughout this competition, with no team having scored more than Leinster’s 11 tries when their possession has gone to seven phases or higher.

They are patient when they need to be, but equally capable of pouncing rapidly on the counter-attack or through their excellent kick return, a platform that has yielded seven tries for them so far in Europe this season.

With their maul also being a potent weapon and Sexton capable of kicking masterclasses, this Leinster team look to have all the tools. Their defensive shape and technique are savage and they simply never stop working for each other.

Racing’s big-hitting defensive line will take some beating, of course, but even with rain forecast to fall at San Mamés in Bilbao today, it’s difficult to imagine Leinster not finding a way to break Racing down.

It’s been an impressive campaign so far but this Leinster team, like Ireland during their Grand Slam, is driven to find another level again and there is no better stage than this Champions Cup final as they bid to earn a fourth European star.

A view of today's game The Bilbao stadium is slick. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We can’t probably go out and play like we did against Scarlets,” said Sexton. “We have to change it up a little bit but still keep the fundamentals of our game the same.

“That’s the big challenge, can you beat a Scarlets-type team and then beat a team like Racing, who are very different?

“That’s what champions need to do.”

Leinster:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Isa Nacewa (captain)
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. Seán Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Scott Fardy
7. Dan Leavy
8. Jordi Murphy

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. Pat Lambie
9. Teddy Iribaren

1. Eddy Ben Arous
2. Camille Chat
3. Cedate Gomes Sa
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Leone Nakarawa
6. Wenceslas Lauret
7. Bernard Le Roux
8. Yannick Nyanga (captain)

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

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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