Those headed to northern Spain in search of sun this weekend look set for disappointment. Heavy rain is forecast for Bilbao on Saturday afternoon but the clouds should clear, metaphorically at least, when Leinster and Racing 92 emerge at San Mames to contest the Champions Cup final.
Bilbao’s selection as the venue for the climax of the European season had raised a few eyebrows, and those looks quickly turned to indignation as the cost of travelling to the Basque city for supporters became clear. Yet, those fans who have made it and found a floor to sleep on are in for a treat.
No one can deny that the two best teams in the competition have made it to the final. Leinster arrive in Bilbao undefeated and having beaten the reigning champions as well as the title holders from the Aviva Premiership and PRO14, not to mention the team that has just finished top of the pile in France.
Racing, on the other hand, struggled to get out of their pool but having made it as one of the three best runners-up, grabbed their chance with gusto. An impressive quarterfinal win at Clermont was followed up by a barnstorming first 20 minutes against Munster that blew their opponents away.
Jacky Lorenzetti’s expensively assembled squad now have their minds focused firmly on sending Dan Carter on his way to Japan with a first European crown, and collective redemption following final defeat to Saracens two years ago.
It would be easy to bill this game as the big-spending Parisian city slickers against the plucky provincial side from Ireland — and Leinster head coach Leo Cullen has tried to do just that — but it would be disingenuous. Cullen’s team is the one with all the European pedigree.
Should they secure victory in front of an expected crowd of 53,000 in Bilbao then Leinster would equal Toulouse’s record haul of four European Cup triumphs. Cian Healy, Devin Toner, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa have been part of each success, and remain a key part of the team that will bid for yet more glory.
That experienced spine has been bolstered by a fine crop of young talent that has emerged over the last two years and helped Ireland to their Six Nations Grand Slam in March. Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw, Jordan Larmour, Dan Leavy, Garry Ringrose and James Ryan could have many more occasions like this to come in their career.
Ryan is this year’s Maro Itoje, and not only in the sense that he is a hulking second row who has burst onto the scene for club and country. The lock, 21, has played 20 matches of professional rugby in his fledgling career — he is yet to taste defeat.
When faced with such a forthright challenger, it is unsurprising that the superstars from Paris might start to second-guess themselves. “I can understand why [we’re seen as underdogs],” Racing wing Joe Rokocoko said this week. “The big thing is they won eight or nine games in a row. We barely came out of our pool, we managed to get a few bonus points and just scraped through to be one of the best losers.
“We did well to come through against Clermont and then again most guys didn’t expect us to beat Munster but we love that role because we’ve been under the radar since the beginning of the season. We’ve just concentrated on what we can do.”
Rokocoko, the former All Black wing, will start on the bench in Bilbao but he started in Lyon two years ago when Saracens and Itoje outclassed Racing. He insists they are a different, better team now — “we were happy just making the final” — but he knows they face a tougher test this time.
“Despite all the analysis you do during the week they [Leinster] come up with a move from their back pocket,” he said. “They’re such an intelligent team and obviously it starts from their big forwards — once they start getting momentum it’s a long day for any team that comes across them.”
The opening exchanges will be key. Both teams started ferociously in their semifinals and were Leinster to land a couple of telling blows early then the game could get away from Racing quickly.
Racing have the ability to do the same to Leinster, of course, but their game plan is not as unrelenting. Cullen and his coaching team would be confident they could be reeled in, as Munster almost did despite shipping three tries in 20 minutes in Bordeaux.
“There’s no doubt Racing will score tries with their firepower but there’s also no doubt too that Leinster will score tries. It’s just a matter of can Racing’s defence be miserly enough to not allow 20, 25, 30 points?” BT Sport pundit, and three-time European Cup winner, Brian O’Driscoll asked as he spoke to ESPN this week.
The departing Carter, for one, will hope they can do — at least until he is introduced in the second half.
The inclusion of the All Black great on the Racing bench, with Springbok Pat Lambie again pulling the strings from fly-half, is what prompted Leinster coach Cullen to suggest his team were facing Goliath. “Having Dan Carter on your bench says it all,” he said.
But at 36 his once superpowers are on the wane — if not completely disappeared — and the South African is the safer pair of hands to steer the Parisian ship. But Carter has made no secret that he wants to set sail for Japan with a European Cup winner’s medal hanging from his neck.
Sentiment rarely meddles in professional sport, however. “If Leinster play at that standard they played against Scarlets, Racing – even the way they played against Munster,” O’Driscoll said. “I don’t think they’ll be able to live with them.”
Carter and Racing will be determined that the Bilbao rain does not give way to tears.