PARIS (Reuters) - Racing 92 were always billed as underdogs for Saturday’s Champions Cup final against three-time winners Leinster but losing their key scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud to injury has only made their task even harder as they gun for a maiden title.
At Bilbao’s San Mames stadium, the French side will be playing their second final in three years while the Irish province, without injured wing Fergus McFadden, are out to match Toulouse’s record of four major European titles.
Leinster are, however, wary of Racing’s firepower, which helped the Parisian side score three tries in the opening 25 minutes against Munster in the semi-finals thanks to the scintillating Teddy Thomas.
“Leinster are flying it this year, they’re an awesome side. But if you underestimate Racing, you’re in trouble,” said Munster and Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray.
“They’ve got such game-breakers and X-factor players, they can do something out of nothing and suddenly score three tries.”
But Leinster’s biggest advantage is the loss of France scrumhalf Machenaud, who tore his knee ligaments in a Top 14 game in April.
Machenaud scored 80 points and had an 88 per cent goalkicking success rate in the Champions Cup — the same as Leinster’s own maestro Jonny Sexton — and his replacement Teddy Iribaren is not exactly confident he is up to the task.
“On the international stage, I have never done anything. Everybody knows that it’s Max who should have played this final,” he told L’Equipe on Friday.
Iribaren, however, has the backing of his team mates.
“Teddy has got guts and great determination and an unorthodox way of playing, a good strong heart. He was performing really well for us at the beginning of the season,” said Joe Rokocoko, who is relishing Racing’s underdog status.
“I can understand why people are underestimating us, but for us that’s normal.
“We kind of love that (underdog) role because we’ve been under the radar since the beginning of the season.”
Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster, who expects Luke McGrath and Jordi Murphy to be fit for the showdown, is certainly not underestimating them.
“I think they’re a side that has come to their peak at the end of the season,” he said.
“The depth of their squad is phenomenal. Any team that can leave Dan Carter on the bench is a serious threat. They’ve got threats all over the park.”
Leinster must again rely on their sharpest weapon against Racing, having won all their lineouts, the starting point of most of their offensive moves, against Saracens and Scarlets in the knockout phase.
They will also be looking to make the most of Racing’s ill-discipline after the Top 14 side conceded 26 penalties in the quarter and semi-finals — 10 more than Leinster.
Later on Friday, Gloucester are gunning for a record-equalling third Challenge Cup title against the Cardiff Blues.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ian Chadband