Leinster will be favourites but Racing a real danger with Teddy Thomas and co.

The Irish province will be expected to secure the Champions Cup title in the final in Bilbao on 12 May.

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade Chaban Delmas

THERE WAS PLENTY of excitement about this weekend’s Champions Cup semi-finals, and justifiably so as Scarlets headed to Dublin with confidence they could beat Leinster and Munster were followed by a huge crowd to Bordeaux to take on Racing 92.

As it transpired, we saw two dominant performances from the finalists in games that barely qualified as contests.

Maxime Machenaud celebrates scoring his sides third try with teammates Racing were dominant in the first half against Munster. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster were simply too good for Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets a year on from suffering defeat to the Welsh region in the Pro14 semi-finals, while Racing blew Munster away in the opening half at Stade Chaban Delmas.

Though Johann van Graan’s side rallied themselves somewhat in the second half, their two late consolation tries won’t hide the fact that they were well beaten in Bordeaux.

The Munster head coach and his captain, Peter O’Mahony, certainly weren’t attempting to suggest otherwise, and Racing were left to reflect on a job well done as they now look towards the decider against Leinster in Bilbao on 12 May.

“Of course we’re proud, we’re very proud,” said Racing coach Laurent Labit after the 27-22 victory. “When you’re a coach you look at the match and after 40 minutes it was like a piece of cake that we had prepared.

“We had 40 minutes of very high-level rugby where we played as we had decided. We had a strong start and blocked Munster’s mindset, the forwards and the collision game.

“What we needed was to keep the ball and we scored three tries, all three in situations we had planned and identified.”

While Leinster’s progress into the final has seen them play excellent attacking rugby, their defence has been equally impressive and it seems unlikely that they will give up the kind of momentum that Munster gave to Racing in contact.

Indeed, Leinster already being installed as seven-point favourites with one bookmaker will not surprise some fans, such has been the quality of the Irish province’s performances in winning every one of their Champions Cup games so far this season.

Maxime Machenaud celebrates with his son Gaspard after the game Racing scrum-half Maxime Machenaud with his son after the game. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Labit pointed out that Racing must deliver on their opening half against Munster for the entire game versus Leinster if they are to compete.

“We want to win a title and we saw Leinster yesterday, so we will have to do the same for 80 minutes against Leinster because 40 won’t be enough.”

Labit and his co-coach, Laurent Travers, must manage their playing resources in the coming weeks, with the final two crucial regular-season rounds of the Top 14 against Bordeaux and Agen awaiting in the next fortnight before the Champions Cup final.

When Racing do head for Bilbao, they will bring major confidence in their attacking game, having dismantled Munster in the first half of their semi-final.

Teddy Thomas scored two and would have had his hat-trick in the 23rd minute, only to decide to pop the ball to Racing captain and Bordeaux native Maxime Machenaud after he had crossed the tryline.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Racing’s Joe Rokocoko when asked about Thomas’ performance. “It’s been coming, this opportunity for him playing top rugby. He’s been unlucky with injuries but in the last year or so he has grown mentally strong.

“We try to encourage him not to settle for his performance, but to keep improving.”

Labit was similarly pleased with how Thomas delivered on the big occasion.

“I know what he can do,” said the Racing coach. “He scared us on the third one when he gave it to Maxime! That’s Teddy, he’s a player who has matured and has an amazing mindset.

Teddy Thomas celebrates before Maxime Machenaud scored his sides third try Thomas was superb in the first half. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“All players want to score three tries in a European Cup semi-final but he offered a try to Maxime, who was playing in his hometown.

“He understood he needed to work hard and he’s doing that now. He’s got great examples in the club, Joe for one, and they’re trying to lead him to the top level.”

Thomas will be important if Racing are to upset the odds against long-time tournament favourites Leinster in the final, as will his fellow attacking threats Virimi Vakatawa and Leone Nakarawa.

The French side tasted defeat in the 2016 decider, their only other Champions Cup final, losing to Saracens in what was a dour game. With Leinster in such superb form, Labit understands that it will require something special to earn Racing’s first title.

“We have to do something exceptional to win it,” said Labit. “Leinster will be a formidable opponent, they have three-quarters of the Irish team.

“We know Johnny Sexton well, we know him very well from playing with us. Leinster are very powerful and physical but they always have different ways to win games.

“They love to create, but we showed today that we also have force.”

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