Rugby | Leinster claim historic fourth Champions Cup

Leinster have won their fourth Champions Cup with a hard-fought 15-12 victory over Racing 92.

Isa Nacewa kicked the winning penalty in the 78th minute after an extremely tight final in the Bilbao rain.

Rémi Talès had the chance to send the game to extra time with the last kick of the game, but his drop-kick sailed wide of the posts.

There was little between the teams over 80 minutes, with Johnny Sexton and Teddy Iribaren exchanging penalties for the majority of the contest in Spain.

With Maxime Machenaud already ruled out for the Parisians, Racing suffered another injury blow when Dan Carter was forced to withdraw from the bench just hours before kick-off.

The New Zealand legend was replaced on the bench by France international Rémi Talès. Talès was thrust into the action after just three minutes after an early injury to the experienced Pat Lambie.

Teddy Iribaren split the posts a moment later to hand Racing an early lead, after a high tackle from Garry Ringrose on Virimi Vakatawa.

Johnny Sexton’s penalty restored parity in the 16th minute after some good pressure by Leinster, but Iribaren restored the French club’s lead with another penalty six minutes later. The French number 10 was excellent in the first half, and dictated play with his fine kicking and vision.

Winger Teddy Thomas, who was so impressive against Munster in the semi-final, was largely anonymous in a tight first half.

Sexton’s second penalty  drew Leo Cullen’s side level on the stroke of half time, after Leone Nakarawa stuck out his hand to illegally block Luke McGrath’s pass.

The Irish side failed to find their rhythm in a tight first half in Spanish rain, despite having 65% possession in the first half hour, and were guilty of some poor tackling and basic errors.

Racing managed to repel Leinster’s potent attack, and executed their game plan extremely well in the opening 40 minutes.

Iribaren made it three penalties from three after the restart, after play was called back from an advantage after 20 phases, making it 9-6 in the relentless rain.

Sexton had a chance to convert another penalty a few minutes later, but his effort skewed well short and wide of the posts.  However, the Irish international made amends in the 54th minute with other penalty, drawing Leinster level for the third time. The 32 year old’s effort from 52 metres drifted just the wrong side of the post a few minutes later.

Leo Cullen began to use his squad depth in the second half, and Jack McGrath was introduced in place of Cian Healy early in the second half. Leinster then made a raft of changes on the hour mark, with Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson-Park, and James Tracy coming on for Sean Cronin, Jordi Murphy and Luke McGrath respectively.

Andrew Porter – who replaced Tadhg Furlong a few minutes later – conceded a penalty with just over 10 minutes remaining. Iribaren duly converted from 46 metres to make it 12-9, his miss five minutes earlier proving to be the exception rather than the rule.

James Ryan – now unbeaten in 21 professional outings – was excellent throughout, and put the Racing players under intense pressures in a whirlwind final 10 minutes.

Isa Nacewa, playing in his last Champions Cup match, remained calm to draw Leinster level yet again with a penalty in the 74th minute.

Three minutes later, extensive Leinster pressure yielded a penalty in front of the posts.

Nacewa made no mistake, and Leinster took the lead for the very first time with just over 90 seconds left on the clock. There was time for one late scare, but Talès couldn’t find the target with his last-gasp drop-kick.

It was fitting that it was Nacewa, winning his fourth Champions Cup, who sealed the title with his last kick in European rugby.

The historic win draws Leinster level with Toulouse on four Champions Cup titles, and makes Leo Cullen the first man to win the trophy as both a player and a coach.