Champions Cup final preview

This Saturday’s final is on a knife-edge as the two best teams in Europe go head-to-head in Bilbao.

Will Johnny Sexton secure his fourth title, or will Dan Carter sign off his career with a title that has eluded him?

Here’s a breakdown of the final.

Form

Form is a bit of a red-herring when looking at Leinster. A much depleted side visited Connacht two weeks ago and they paid the price. A 47-10 drumming by the home side suggests, but sitting on top of the Pro14 Conference B, they could afford to rest players.

The better bellwether of their form is how they performed in this competition. Their humiliation of the Scarlets in the semi-final is a good indicator of where they are.

The Irishmen are famed for their precision and execution in the backs, steered by Sexton, but their semi-final victory was a forwards’ masterclass. They savaged the Scarlets up front, and rarely needed to play with any width. The Welsh side wilted and crumbled in the middle, with three of the tries coming from Leinster forwards.

Leo Cullen’s men will need that level of brutality up front to curtail a Racing 92 outfit that look red-hot with front foot ball.

The Parisian’s form looks much more encouraging than Leinster’s. They dispatched both Bordeaux and Agen without needing to get out of second gear. This may be testament to their greater strength in-depth however.

Their performance in the semi-final against Munster was as impressive, if not more, than the Dubliners’. The wily European masters in red were blown away in the opening twenty minutes. The opening quarter was perhaps the most impressive display by any side this season.

The scoreboard flatters Munster in truth, Racing took their foot off the pedal after opening up such an impressive lead and coasted for the remaining 60 minutes.

Virimi Vakatawa was sensational at 13, searing through the red defence with ease. With a distributor the level of Pat Lambie inside him, and a finisher like Teddy Thomas outside him, the sevens specialist looks dangerous every time his hands are on the ball.

Players

Both teams are littered with star players with ‘big game’ experience.

Sexton will always be the star man for Leinster. The way he orchestrates games with his boot and passing will be key in a final. With the return of Luke McGrath, if the half backs can dictate the pace and territory of the game, it could be the most crucial factor in this final.

The power of  Tadhg Furlong up front will be important in suppressing the French side. Alongside second-row James Ryan, they have a monumental task in trying to stop Racing’s forwards having a free roam of the field with quick ball. If the likes of Leone Nakarawa and Yannick Nyanga get their hands on the ball a lot, it could spell trouble for the Dubliners.

The guile and finesse of players like Garry Ringrose in the Leinster back-line will be an asset which could prove destructive. As impressive as Vakatawa is going forward, if Ringrose can exploit a potential positional weakness, he will, and it is fine margins like this that can win finals.

Intangibles

Leinster clearly have the experience when it comes to these big European finals. Chasing a record-equalling fourth title, they still have players that featured in all three victorious campaigns, and that will prove vital.

The men in blue will be buoyed by the success of the national side. Possessing many of the Grand Slam winners will be useful, as it is not only a good indicator of form, but of a contagious winning mentality.

The only European final that Racing 92 have featured in ended in a loss to Saracens two years ago. They bounced back and won the Top 14 that season, a competition they are only one point off top spot in this season.

Therefore, they do have players with experience in these big finals. Not to mention a player like Dan Carter, who knows a thing or two about performing at the highest level. The Kiwi maestro has played second fiddle to Lambie this season, but no matter what position Racing may find themselves in with 20 minutes remaining, he is a man for all occasions to bring on. The bench could give the edge in a game as close as this.

It is hard to say whether the game being played in Spain benefits either side. Of course Paris is closer, but it is still a long way, and flights to Spain aren’t hard to come by. Is it a good sign for the Parisians that their Top 14 final win came in Barcelona?

This game is too close to call. Leinster go in with the favourites tag, but that in no way discredits Racing’s ability or potential. It may just be a nod to an experienced side with players in excellent form.

If you’re a betting man, don’t put much on. But this may well be the underdogs’ day.

 

 

 

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