Champions Cup: Racing 92 v Leinster, Stade Océane, Le Havre, Saturday, 1.0 Irish time – Live on BT Sport
Leinster endured a five-hour delay before boarding their chartered flight to Deauville on Friday, an inconvenience that became a downright nuisance when the flight was diverted to Paris Beauvais, requiring a two-hour bus journey before they finally arrived at their destination of Le Havre.
Last year’s beaten Heineken Champions Cup finalists arrived without the injured Johnny Sexton (calf) and Tadhg Furlong (ankle) for Saturday’s opener against Racing 92. Ross Byrne, as he did against Ulster at the RDS last weekend, will manage Leinster’s game plan while Michael Ala’alatoa put in an impressive, hard-working shift in that game, twice, in coming back on for the injured Furlong. Cian Healy, who has his red card downgraded to yellow, will cover tighthead prop on the bench.
There is one change in the backline with former All Black Charlie Ngatai recovering from a shoulder injury to partner Garry Ringrose – he will once again captain the side – in midfield. Jamie Osborne drops to the replacements from where he is in line to make his European debut.
Dan Sheehan starts in place of Rónan Kelleher, who is named on the bench. Caelan Doris is back at number eight while Ed Byrne and Harry Byrne are promoted to the matchday 23.
Racing 92 head coach Laurent Travers has made wholesale changes to the team that won 31-14 in Toulon, flanker Ibrahim Diallo the only player retained from the starting XV. Gael Fickou returns in the centre to captain the team where he is joined by former Munster player Francis Saili.
Max Spring is a livewire presence at fullback, while right wing Christian Wade, who had a brief career in American Football’s NFL, has displayed quite an affinity for playing against Leinster in the past, scoring five tries in four appearances for Wasps against the Irish province between 2013 and 2017. The Argentinian Juan Imhoff is a renowned finisher.
The French club retain the starting frontrow of Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat and Cedate Gomez Sa from the 2018 European final between the teams, Leinster’s narrow 15-12 win represented their last outright triumph in the tournament. Flanker Wenceslaus Lauret also started that game, while Boris Palu, Baptiste Chouzenoux and Antoine Gibert are once again on the bench as they were four years ago.
Seven Leinster players boast first-hand knowledge of that occasion with four – Ringrose, James Ryan, Andrew Porter, and Jamison Gibson-Park – in Saturday’s run-on team. The clubs can also dispute which has the greater motivation, Racing having lost three Champions Cup finals or Leinster, their two most recent, including last season’s devastating, late loss to La Rochelle.
The structure of the competition means that defeats are difficult to absorb in a four-match sprint at the pool stage, particularly in pursuit of a home quarter-final.
Racing may have moved the fixture to the coastal town of Le Havre – the La Defense arena is hosting a concert – a club, with whom they have a long-standing relationship, but they couldn’t be in better form, eight wins from 12 matches in the French Top 14, including the last five in succession.
Their set piece of scrum and lineout is excellent, they possess brilliant athletes like Cameron Woki and Diallo in the back five of the pack and then there is the artist known as Finn Russell, capable of the sublime and the ridiculous, occasionally in the same breath. If he’s given time and space the visitors will be in trouble.
Leinster demonstrated their mettle in the way in which they came back from 22-3 down to win against Ulster, Ringrose, Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Ryan Baird and Porter inspiring the collective, but Racing won’t give them a sniff if Leo Cullen’s side start in a similarly off-colour fashion.
The visitors are unlikely to dominate Racing up front – the home side have gone for a 6-2 split on the bench – which places a greater emphasis on fluidity and cohesion behind the scrum, a pinpoint kicking game and being connected and aggressive in defence. This match is a glimpse of the future for Leinster and a chance to prove that success is beholden to the team not individuals.
RACING 92: M Spring; C Wade, F Saili, G Fickou (capt), J Imhoff; F Russell, N Le Garrec; E Ben Arous, C Chat, C Gomes Sa; C Woki, F Sanconnie; W Lauret, I Diallo, M Baudonne.
Replacements: J Tarrit, H Kolingar, T Nyakane, A Bresler, B Palu, B Chouzenoux, A Gibert, O Klemenczak.
LEINSTER: H Keenan; J O’Brien, G Ringrose (capt), C Ngatai, J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, M Ala’alatoa; J Jenkins; J Ryan; R Baird, J van der Flier, C Doris.
Replacements: R Kelleher, E Byrne, C Healy, R Molony, J Conan, L McGrath, H Byrne, J Osborne.
Referee: L Pearce (England)
Verdict: Leinster to win.