Leinster are on the cusp of European glory once again and their clash with Racing 92 ought to make for a fantastic clash in Bilbao. The city is normally used to seeing some of the best footballers in Europe but rugby has already taken over with the Challenge Cup final and entrainment seems guaranteed.
Leinster are the hot favourites and thoroughly deserving of the title. In eight European matches, this season they have been simply flawless and the opposition is a who’s who of European Rugby.
In the pool stages they had six wins out of six from English champions and now semi-finalists Exeter, Top 14 regular season table-toppers Montpellier, and Glasgow, Pro12 champions two seasons ago and who went into their opening fixture top of the Pro14 table with six wins out of six before then dominating their table in Conference A to earn a home semi-final.
In the knockout stages, they were far too good for defending Champions Saracens and Pro14 champions Scarlets, dominating each game and winning by margins of 11 and 16 points.
Nobody has yet been able to answer their incredible combination of pace and power, built on much of the Irish Grand Slam winning squad, and their bench depth has been unrivalled by many sides too – a key part of their relentless second-half onslaughts.
Racing’s progress has been nowhere as serene but it’s peaking on the day that counts and they have truly hit their stride through the knockouts. They were too strong for Clermont in the quarter-final when the fleet-footed Dan Carter set up two second-half tries, but it was arguably even more impressive how they really put the afterburners on Munster in their semi-final.
The men in red were 24-3 down before half an hour thanks to the brilliance of Teddy Thomas, who carved open their defence, and from then on they were always home even if Munster managed to put some gloss on a late comeback.
There’s no limit to the number of players that Racing have who can hurt Leinster; The foursome of Virimi Vakatawa, Henry Chavancy, Marc Andreu are top weapons for Pat Lambie to use. The huge athleticism that Yannick Nyanga, Bernard Le Roux, Leone Nakarawa, Donnacha Ryan, Camille Chat, and Eddy Ben Arous bring to the pack has overwhelmed many of their opponents, but Leinster are a different proposition.
Racing have shown flexibility in terms of when they can put their foot to the floor – they were 9-0 down early against Clermont but made all the running against Munster – but it is impossible to imagine this Leinster side being caught out so early as Munster were, nor wilting in the same fashion that below-parar Clermont side did.
There is also the huge absence of Maxime Machenaud. The French international scored 17 of their 27 points against Munster in the semi-final and has been a focal point of their success for the whole season, linking brilliantly with Lambie and outfoxing entire opposition backrows. His replacement, Teddy Iribaren, is not to be underestimated but there will be none of the familiarity that Macheanud had with the side.
Leinster will once again miss James Lowe, but they are just as stacked with talent as Racing and so much test experience that inevitably makes a difference in such situations, We know all about Johnny Sexton, who has been here and done it before and with Rob Kearney he gives Leinster a beautiful tactical base to work from.
There’s explosive power to match Racing with Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, and Isa Nacewa in the backline but some will say that Leinster’s real success has been built upon the incredibly industrious nature of their pack.
No side has found an answer to the sheer work rate, carrying or breakdown prowess of Jordi Murphy, Dan Leavy, Scott Fardy, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Tadhg Furlong, Seán Cronin, or Cian Healy and it’s understandable that they will go off favourites.
However, Racing do have the right mix of pace and power to stay with Leinster further than other sides have and a 12-point handicap is one they can stay in if they play to their best. Whilst the weather is set to be decidedly un-spanish early in the afternoon, things should clear up and a marker of 42.5 points looks like one that can be beaten.
2 pts Racing +12 (evs SkyBet)
1 pt Over 42.5 (10/11 general)
Already Advised – 13th October
2 pts each/way Leinster (9/1 Hills, Ladbrokes, Coral)