A depleted Racing 92 came within six minutes of achieving the impossible, but eventually the Leinster juggernaut found a way to win and clinch their fourth European Champions Cup final triumph with a 15-12 victory in the first premier European game to be staged in Spain.
In a fitting farewell, it was retiring Leinster captain Isa Nacewa who stepped up to kick two penalties, the first in the 74th minute and the second 90 seconds from time, that gave the Irish province the lead for the first time in the match and ensure that the silverware, again, goes back to Ireland.
In what has been a phenomenally successful two months for Irish sides following the Six Nations Grand Slam and the progression of both Leinster and Munster to the last four of this tournament, it was the former who ensured that Irish hands were back on the appropriately renamed Anthony Foley Memorial Trophy, in memory of the late Munster head coach, for the first time since Leinster’s Heineken Cup win in 2012.
Unlike Friday night’s Challenge Cup try-fest, both whitewashes remained intact as it came down to a kicking shootout between the hugely impressive Racing 92 scrum-half Teddy Iribaren and Leinster’s double-act of Johnny Sexton and Nacewa, and in the end it came down to the smallest margins. When Leinster pushed on in the dying minutes, they emerged with two Nacewa penalties: Racing could only muster a drop-goal opportunity for late replacement Remi Tales, and when his effort was hooked wide the celebrations began.
As starts go, it couldn’t have been much more disastrous for Racing unless their coach broke down leaving them stranded somewhere on the highways of the Basque Country. Having lost star scrum-half Maxime Machenaud to a serious knee ligament injury two weeks ago along with veteran hooker Dimitri Szarzewski with a broken arm, two-time Rugby World Cup winner Dan Carter was ruled out of this match just 90 minutes before kick-off due to a hamstring injury.
Given that Carter was due to be among the replacements, the loss of the 112-time capped All Black may not have been so large had starting fly-half Pat Lambie not collapsed after just two minutes. The South African suffered an injury to his left knee that ended his final before it had really got going, and France international Tales was called upon, having initially not even been named in the squad.
But to their credit, Racing looked unnerved by the early setback, and took the lead in seconds after Lambie limped off after Garry Ringrose’s high tackle on opposite number Virimi Vakatawa, allowing Iribaren to slot the penalty.
Leinster took time to settle into the game, even if their fans dominated the 52,282 inside the San Mames Stadium, but after a nice break from Nacewa down the left wing, referee Wayne Barnes awarded a penalty for offside and Sexton levelled the scores.
It would prove to be a busy evening for Barnes with both teams guilty of ill-discipline throughout, with one area that went in Racing’s favour being the driving maul. The first time that the Top 14 side managed to position themselves in the red zone, Leinster flanker Scott Fardy collapsed the maul and Iribaren restored the lead.
On the half-hour mark, a sickening head clash between Robbie Henshaw and Louis Dupichot caused a brief stoppage, and while Dupichot departed for a head injury assessment that he would eventually return from, Henshaw remained on the pitch despite clearly taking a blow to the face. From the following play, Leinster won a penalty and Sexton dummied a kick to the corner before taking a quick-tap – only for Camille Chat to win an immediate penalty in racing’s favour that spurned a glorious chance.
It would prove to be Leinster’s best chance to score a try, but two minutes before the break Sexton levelled the scores following a high shot on Henshaw and a deliberate knock-on for Leone Nakarawa that really should have resulted in a trip to the sin-bin.
Like the first half, the second 40 began with Racing on the front foot and when Leinster were found to have slowed the ball down, Iribaren added his third penalty five minutes after the restart. But the response again came from Leinster when replacement hooker Ole Avei tackled Fardy off the ball, and Sexton slotted the long-range effort from about 43 metres out. Sexton then had another chance to kick Leinster into the lead, but his 50-metre shot was shanked horribly wide.
When the Leinster pack collapsed a second driving maul nine minutes from time, Iribaren looked like he had put one hand on the trophy with his fourth penalty, but the luck was on the side of the Irish. Nacewa stepped up to kick two pressure penalties, and the Bilbao party began seconds after when Tales failed with the drop-goal.
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa; Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath (Jamison Gibson-park, 62); Cian Healy (Jack McGrath, 55), Sean Cronin (James Tracy, 62), Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter, 66); Devin Toner, James Ryan; Scott Fardy, Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy (Jack Conan, 62).
Replacements not used: Rhys Ruddock, Joey Carbery, Rory O’Loughlin.
Racing 92: Louis Dupichot (Joe Rokocoko, 30-38); Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Henry Chavancy, Marc Andreu; Pat Lambie (Remi Tales, 3), Teddy Iribaren; Eddy Ben Arous (Vasil Kakovin, 55), Camille Chat (Ole Avei, 44-55, 59), Cedate Gomes Sa (Census Johnston, 55); Donnacha Ryan, Leone Nakawara; Wenceslas Lauret, Bernard Le Roux (Baptiste Chouzenoux, 69), Yannick Nyanga.