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Sunday, 16 December, 2018

Pedigree, fitness and conditions favour all-conquering Leinster

Machenaud absence a huge blow for Racing 92

Leinster's outstanding line-out can be a crucial weapon
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Leinster v Racing 92
BT Sport 2 & Sky Sports Action, 4.45pm Saturday

Three-time European champions Leinster go into the Champions Cup final as the strongest favourites for more than a decade and it's hard to see them falling short against a Racing side missing their most influential player. 

Parisian outfit Racing, who are given a double-figure handicap start, are without scrum-half and playmaker Maxime Machenaud. The France international is also their frontline goalkicker and contributed 17 of their 27 points in the semi-final victory over Munster.

Teddy Iribaren comes in at number nine for the French side, and although Racing's squad may be blessed with more star names and individual talents, Leinster look the complete team as they bid to equal Toulouse's record of four trophies.

Leinster have already conquered all in Europe this season with eight wins out of eight, all against the highest calibre of opposition.

Their pool rivals were English champions Exeter, French side Montpellier who have just finished top of the Top 14, and Glasgow, Pro12 champions two seasons ago and who went into their opening fixture top of the Pro14 table with six wins out of six.

In the knockout stages, Leinster saw off defending European champions Saracens and Pro14 champions Scarlets. And if that record was not already remarkable enough in its own right, they bossed every match, tailoring their game each time.

With three European titles already in the last decade, Leinster know that to conquer Europe you have to be a team for all seasons and they have shown the full spectrum of performances, from rolling up their sleeves to master the Exeter pack at Sandy Park to turning on the expansive style against Glasgow and defending expertly against freescoring Sarries.

Racing finished second in their pool, losing two matches, and although a team who can win at Clermont in a European knockout match have to be respected, the Parisians’ performances have contrasted sharply with those of their opponents.

Leinster are consistent, efficient, ruthless and relentless - Racing are brilliant but fleeting, and teams have shown this year that if you put a lid on them they can be kept down.

The two games Racing have lost in the tournament this year are the two in which they have failed to score a first-half try - against Munster the match was scoreless until the hour mark while at Castres the teams were level at 6-6 at the break.

In their other four pool matches Racing’s first try came after four, 17, two and six minutes, while in the semi-final against Munster they crossed after four minutes again and were up by three tries to nil after 20 minutes.

Defensively these are two of the strongest sides in the tournament but it's hard to escape the feeling that to get a foothold in the game Racing must score early and Leinster are not only wise to the threat they pose but have the game to negate it.

Stacked against Leinster is the fact that they have not played a meaningful match since their semi-final success over Scarlets, having rested key men and largely gone through the motions last time out against Connacht.

But the players are well used to regular rotation and it give them a huge edge in fitness and conditioning which may well tell come the closing stages. There was a point in it at half-time in their quarter-final with Saracens but they pulled away to win 30-19 while against Exeter in the pool stage they overturned a 17-9 deficit to win 22-17.

The heat many predicted would trouble them in Bilbao won't be a factor. The forecast is for a cool afternoon with earlier rain making for damp conditions underfoot, further hampering Racing's pacy running game.

The conditions could play to Leinster's kicking tactics and they can put pressure on the Racing back three and look to their outstanding line-out.

Leinster -6 on second-half handicap
3pts 10-11 Hills
Forward to score first try
1pt 6-4 Betway

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Leinster have already conquered all in Europe this season with eight wins out of eight, all against the highest calibre of opposition
E.W. Terms
Sky bet