Leinster 36 Racing 92 10
To the victor the spoils and the right to initially lead the tone of the post-match debrief. Leinster achieved their goal of securing a number one seeding in Pool A, but the performance lacked the sheen of previous outings in the Heineken Champions Cup, their efforts rebuffed for nearly an hour by an obstinate and physically committed Racing 92.
The scoreboard offered a more flattering hue at the final whistle by virtue of a four-try blitz in the final 15 minutes, Racing’s rearguard action unravelled as adrenaline was no longer a sufficient fuel source for rapidly tiring minds and limbs.
Leinster punished the visitors ruthlessly as the gaps appeared, energised by the quality of the contribution from the replacements with Dan Sheehan, Ross Molony and Ryan Baird especially conspicuous in that regard. Quick front-foot ball was the catalyst for the barrage of points as the home side were belatedly able to sustain their creative side in attack.
[ Champions Cup as it happened: Leinster blow away Racing 92 in second half ]
Leo Cullen said: “The bench was good across the board. You need that level of impact in this competition. In games you get stuck for whatever reason, the impact of the guys coming off the bench is hugely important.”
There were aspects of Leinster’s display that will serve as a timely reminder that no team can afford to get in its own way, through ill-discipline, handling errors and a structure that veered from the loosey-goosey to stilted and pedestrian, while for the second match in a row the scrum and lineout maul defence, need repair work.
Josh van der Flier, a try scorer, neatly summed up the afternoon’s fare. “I don’t think the score does justice to Racing or how tight a game it was. We obviously managed to rack up a few points at the end, but they made it really tough for us, very tight at half-time and they came at us in the second half as well. It was a much tighter game than that, but we managed to pull away.
The openside flanker agreed that Leinster could derive positivity in finding a solution in real time that will stand to them further down the road in Europe. “Yeah definitely, you look at last year, everything seemed to be going great until the last two minutes of the competition.
“So yeah, it’s nice to get pretty wins, I suppose you could call them, where it’s convincing from the start and we manage to hold on and get a win, but it’s great to have those arm-wrestles and come out on the right side of a game like that. It’s incredibly rewarding, especially looking towards knockout rugby because that’s what it’s like, they’re all tight games.”
Quite apart from the collective, there were some individual landmarks, Luke McGrath’s 50th appearance in Europe and Scott Penny’s first in the tournament, both achieved off the bench, while there were some notable individual displays foremost among which was that of captain Garry Ringrose, a deserved man-of-the-match.
He was outstanding in every facet of the game, his performance bookended by a slashing break for the game’s first try and a brave finish to conclude the scoring, providing an exclamation mark to highlight the quality of his contribution. Jamie Osborne was an excellent foil alongside in midfield, strong, purposeful and demonstrating game intelligence that belied his tender years.
[ From Naas to Ireland call-up: Jamie Osborne is heading for the top ]
Jimmy O’Brien and Hugo Keenan crossed for a couple of tries apiece while Jordan Larmour worked effectively, occasionally in non-orthodox as evidenced by popping up at outhalf for his team’s first try, a slick move that prospered by the work of Ross Byrne in putting Ringrose through a gap and the centre in giving O’Brien an easy run-in.
Leinster’s halfbacks tried to put some shape on their patterns, but a spiralling penalty count thwarted that ambition for almost an hour. English referee Matthew Carley decided to relentlessly penalise the attacking team – he did the same to Racing in several instances – to the point where it became perplexing.
The home side lost the penalty count 10-4 in the first half despite having 65 per cent territorial dominance and 61 per cent possession. To put it politely it was at times a puzzling performance from the match officials. As Cullen pointed out: “It’s not like we were on our try line for long periods of time. There was one segment but there wasn’t a period where we were camped on our line for 15 minutes.”
The pack worked hard if not always to the best effect. Jack Conan was a key contributor in Leinster’s bright end game but there’s an argument that the balance in the backrow is compromised when Caelan Doris is shifted to blindside flanker, which seems to curb his natural instincts, sidelining his influence to a degree.
Leinster led 7-0 through Jimmy O’Brien’s opening try but tries either side of half-time from Racing hooker Janick Tarrit and wing Christian Wade, his seventh in matches against Leinster, and delivered on a plate by Finn Russell’s creativity saw Racing lead 10-7 and threaten an upset.
The home side responded with a try from Keenan, before enjoying a scoring fusillade in the final 15 minutes with van der Flier, Keenan, O’Brien and Ringrose crossing the Racing line and sending the majority of the 43,000 crowd away with a pep in their step.
Leinster will renew their sibling provincial rivalry with Ulster in April, a rugby lifetime away. For now, the group can reflect with legitimate satisfaction on how they got there.
Scoring sequence: 14 mins: O’Brien try, Byrne conversion, 7-0; 32: Tarrit try, 7-5. Halftime: 7-5. 47: Wade try, 7-10; 53: Keenan try, 12-10; 65: van der Flier try, 17-10; 68: Keenan try, R Byrne conversion, 24-10; 72: O’Brien try, 29-10; 80 (+2): Ringrose try, H Byrne conversion, 36-10.
Leinster: H Keenan; J Larmour, G Ringrose (capt), J Osborne, J O’Brien; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, R Kelleher, M Ala’alatoa; J Ryan, J McCarthy; C Doris, J van der Flier, J Conan. Replacements: D Sheehan for Kelleher 49 mins, R Molony for McCarthy 49 mins; C Healy for Ala’alatoa 57 mins; R Baird for Doris 57 mins; L McGrath for Gibson-Park 65 mins; H Byrne for Osborne 66 mins; S Penny for van der Flier 70 mins; M Milne for Porter 72 mins.
Racing 92: W Gelant; C Wade, O Klemenczak, G Fickou (capt), L Dupichot; F Russell, N le Garrec; E Ben Arous, J Tarrit, T Nyakane; B Chouzenoux, B Palu; W Lauret, M Coulibaly, K Kamikamica. Replacements: M Spring for Dupichot 14-28 and 54 mins; G Kharaishvili for Nyakane 40 (+3) mins; G Gogichashvili for Ben Arous 46 mins; M Baudonne for Coulibaly 49 mins; P Narisia for Tarrit 67 mins; F Saili for Klemenczak 67 mins; A Gibert for Gelant 70 mins; A Hemery for Chouzenoux 72 mins.
Yellow card: Jordan Larmour (Leinster) 27 mins.
Referee: M Carley (England).