“We were definitely a little bit off, for whatever reason”, Leo Cullen conceded.
With 14 minutes to go, in decent conditions and against opponents who refused to roll over, Josh van der Flier scored a mauled try off a sneaky little lineout play that put Leinster one score ahead. It’s unlikely anyone in blue thought the game had just been tucked up in bed.
The final quarter made it look otherwise, with another three tries — all with touches of extraordinary skill — but it was like a closing chapter from a different book copied and pasted to reach the word count.
So, job done? Yes, the plan setting out in this Heineken Champions Cup was to be top of the heap going into the round of 16. The same plan involved making a statement about Leinster’s state of readiness to drive on and over all comers from here on, but that’s where it went a bit haywire here.
You won’t scare anyone with a scrum that doesn’t have the capacity every so often to stick opponents into demoralising reverse and force the referee to add a penalty for artistic merit.
Neither will you spread panic in those you want to unsettle if your breakdown work is sluggish and the referee keeps getting in the way.
So while Leinster in part were doing as Leinster do — playing at huge pace and with mostly very good handling skills — every time they came up for air there were still maybe 13/14 white shirts still on their feet and looking to defend.
That willingness and speed to get into defensive shape kept Racing in the game. They would done better had Finn Russell been sharper off the tee. That said, his contribution to Racing’s two tries, and his ability to make the right calls in broken play, are of a very high order.
“We fronted up in a way we didn’t in the first game,” Racing assistant coach Rory Teague said afterwards. “It left a sour taste in our mouths [the defeat in Le Havre]. Unfortunately from our point of view they pulled away in the end.”
Interestingly Leinster were still pulling away with the clock in the red and the target already achieved. This was odd given they had a scrum close to the touchline and could have got the ball off the field. Instead they kept going, adding the sixth try from man of the match Garry Ringrose and sending the punters home happy.
It looked like an unnecessary risk. Sure enough Ringrose got a dangerously delivered dunt from Christian Wade as he touched down. Wade had played out the endgame recklessly and should have been penalised by referee Matthew Carley.
“It was the players’ call,” Leo Cullen said. “They were enjoying themselves and wanted to deliver for the supporters.”
Cullen is mindful to highlight the time sensitivity about all of this. Often he refers to the buzz his players get from each other’s company and the privilege of being part of this group. Nothing lasts forever so enjoy each moment as it unfolds.
He also conceded this performance was not quite what he had been looking for. “We were definitely a little bit off, for whatever reason.” That will occupy them this coming week, and beyond.
The first half was a battle at the end of which Leinster were 7-5 ahead. Racing were well pleased with that, and with how the third quarter was unfolding, until three tries in nine minutes, featuring second touchdowns for Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien, did huge damage. That finished them off, at least in theory. The practice but was trickier.
Leinster:H Keenan, J O’Brien 2 tries each; J van der Flier, G Ringrose try each; R Byrne 2 cons; H Byrne con.
Racing:J Tarrit, C Wade try each.
Leinster:H Keenan; J Larmour (yc 28-38), G Ringrose (capt), J Osborne (H Byrne 68), J O’Brien; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park (L McGrath 66); A Porter (M Milne 71) , R Kelleher (D Sheehan 50), M Ala’alatoa (C Healy 58), J Ryan, J McCarthy (R Molony 50), C Doris (R Baird 58), J Conan, J van der Flier (S Penny 71)
Racing 92:W Gelant (A Gibert 72); C Wade, O Klemenczak (F Saili 68) , G Fickou (capt), L Dupichot (M Spring blood 16-29; 55); F Russell, N le Garrec; E Ben Arous (G Gogichashvili ht), J Tarrit (P Narisa 68), T Nyakane (G Kharaishvili 40), B Chouzenoux (A Hemery 73), B Palu, W Lauret, K Kamikamica, M Coulibaly (M Baudonne 50)
Referee:M Carley (England).