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Andrew Porter wary of Racing set-piece prowess ahead of Champions Cup opener

Leinster prop recovering from lengthy shift against Ulster after deputising for sent off Cian Healy

No prizes for guessing which two defeats, perhaps of the last 27 years, hurt Leinster the most; the 2019 Champions Cup final against Saracens in Newcastle and when losing last May’s decider against La Rochelle in the last play of the game.

Last week’s stirring, 14-man comeback win from 22-3 down over Ulster a week ago was a timely tonic but the latter defeat in Marseille will be remembered every bit as acutely this week as they prepared for their opening European assignment against Racing 92 in Le Havre on Saturday (kick-off 2pm local time/1pm Irish, live on BT Sport).

“The last time we played in Europe it was a tough day over in Marseille,” recalled Andrew Porter on Monday. “You can tell there is a pep in everyone’s step this morning coming into training. It is a completely different week to a URC week. The excitement builds up to the weekend. We know we have to put in the work against a team like Racing. They are really special weeks and we remember last year and not for the right reasons. That is really pushing us on.”

Not that Leinster have an exclusive preserve on European pain. Racing have become the new Munster/Clermont after losing three of the last seven finals in search of a first star, including the 15-12 loss to Leinster in Bilbao in 2018 when the sides last met.

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“They will remember that game and be hurting from it,” admitted Porter. “They will want to show that they are the best team in Europe. It’s easy to remember your wins but a lot easier to remember the losses in those big games and they won’t have forgotten that one in the same way that we haven’t forgotten the one against La Rochelle last season in Marseille. They could look at that game as a blueprint. It was obviously a very close game but they have evolved since that.”

Porter’s abiding memory of that try-less final was the amount of Leinster fans who made the trek to northern Spain.

“Even seeing my dad in the stand after the game is one of those memories you will take with you your whole life,” said Porter, in reference to his father Ernie, an old-school inside centre in his playing days with Old Wesley.

“I remember how physical the game itself was and how much tempo Racing played with so I don’t think it will be too dissimilar.”

Even when resting front-liners last week Racing did untold damage to the Toulon lineout when registering the only away win of the weekend in the Top 14 in climbing to second on the back of a fifth successive victory.

“They have an incredible lineout. They are top for lineouts steals in the Top14 so it will be a huge game for our set-piece but we are more than capable and ready for it.”

“They are a bit different compared to a lot of other French packs,” Porter added. “They are obviously big men but they are big athletic men that can get around the park. It’s a huge challenge for us this week, especially over in France.”

Cian Healy’s 21st minute red card against Ulster, which has been overturned, lit a fire in Porter’s belly if also meaning a longer than expected 54-minute shift for Porter.

“Everyone has to work an extra five or ten per cent harder but I definitely felt it after the game. I was bollixed after it.”

In addition to putting himself about, Porter made a couple of trademark steals, although he admits that he has had to be more selective.

“Seanie O’Brien is doing great work in our ruck and our contact piece in our team play. It’s reading the game and a lot of the time I’m told not to go for them because you obviously want to fill the defensive line, but if it’s on it’s on.

“It’s more coaching the decision-making than the actual technique itself because if you are there in the ruck you are obviously leaving yourselves one short in the defensive line. My technique has come down to the way I’m training and also the coaches are coaching me in my decision-making.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times