Irish Rugby’s space at the head of the Rugby Union table this year shows no sign of coming to an end. As far as ERCC finals go it won’t go down as a classic but it’s impossible to deny Leinster of their fantastic feat as they become only the second in history to have won 4 European Cups.
The score margins in Bilbao were incredibly slim with the retiring Isa Nacewa knocking home the winning penalty with less than 120 seconds remaining on the clock. Leinster’s consistency this year is unparalleled and many expect that to continue into the next season also.
Despite being drawn against tough competition to start with, Leinster has done incredibly well to finish the tournament with a 9-out-of-9 record. Their 100% record this year offered shades of the Saracens 2 years ago.
Regardless of Remi Tales’ agonising drop-goal attempt in the final seconds which was deflected wide, I imagine Leinster will have still gone onto win the game. Racing 92 were already down to their third choice fly-half before time was called.
The phenomenal Dan Carter irritated his hamstring bringing a premature end to his career and denying him the fantasy finish he so desperately deserved. South African, Pat Lambie also hobbled off after being annihilated by Johnny Sexton.
In all honestly, with key injuries to the likes of Maxime Machenaud and Dimitri Szarzewski it’s an achievement for Racing to lose with such slim margins, to begin with.
The lack of scoring is unlikely to cause an onset of panic in Leo Cullen – the first man to win the tournament as both a player and a coach – and Stuart Lancaster will likely enjoy this victory long into the night.
Former England head coach has had ups and downs in his career to date but his decision to re-settle in Dublin has certainly been proven to be fruitful.
Postgame, Cullen spoke to the media saying the game “wasn’t pretty”. Teddy Iribaren is far from an elite player but the Scrumhalf had a phenomenal game with his left-footed effort coming so close to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the dying moments.
The opening exchanges were violent and chaotic. Garry Ringrose cost his team 3 points with a high tackle down the left-hand side.
Racing showed aggression out the gates also with a constant bulldog like harassment throughout. collapsed maul gave Iribaren, who has Basque heritage, the chance to restore Racing’s lead and it was only when Leinster tried to keep the ball in the air that Racing looked a little unsure of themselves.
Leinster got creative
Leinster made some interesting decisions in the game. For example; Sexton was awarded a penalty from 15-metres. Instead of kicking the goal Sexton took a quick tap before passing the ball onto Dan Leavy where it was instantly turned over uncharacteristically.
Wayne Barnes, the referee was forced to adjudicate more than his fair share of hairline infractions in a claustrophobic first 40 minutes
If Nakarawa was slightly fortunate not to receive a yellow card for sticking out an involuntary hand and blocking a promising Leinster attack, it merely underlined just how narrow the margins were and the ambiguity of the law.
A deliberate, cynical slap down of a potential scoring pass is clearly deserving of 10 minutes in the bin but players and supporters are now appealing for pretty much anything they can.
6-minutes later Sexton levelled the score to amend his previous mistakes only to see another penalty shortly after missing the target again.
Another high tackle, this time by Leavy on Chavancy gave Racing their opportunity to force their way back into the game but Teddy simply wasn’t at the races.
As extra time became a possibility Nacewa’s two late penalties spared his side what would surely have been an embarrassing end to regulation time. “It was tough – torturous in many ways – to watch that last 20 minutes,” said Cullen. “Maybe that makes it that bit more special, to have to go through that pain.”
I’m not sure whether this clash in Bilbao will be able to move young Spaniards away from their love of Real Madrid, Barcelona and all things soccer but this weekend has certainly been successful for Rugby Union throughout Europe.
Next year, the final takes place in Newcastle and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Leinster fans started to plan their trips to Geordie central already.