EUROPE’s premier club competitions enter their final weekend, with Cardiff first taking on Gloucester in the second tier Challenge Cup (kickoff 3am Saturday Malaysian time) and Irish province Leinster meeting France’s Racing 92 (kickoff 11.15pm).
Both games will be at Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium with its capacity for 53,000 people.
After having the better of two-time champion Saracens in the quarter-final, Leinster beat Scarlets 38-16. It also won all its pool games.
The side named to play the final has at least 12 players with Test experience, including Wallaby Scott Fardy and one-Test Fiji international Isa Nacewa, in the starting line-up. Nacewa is captain of the side he has been with since 2008 and had earlier announced his retirement from the sport to return to Auckland after this season.
The game is special because it’ll also be the swansong in France for former All Blacks star Dan Carter, named on the bench.
Carter joined the club after the last World Cup in 2015 and after this heads to Kobe Steel on a two-year contract. He is named on the bench.
If Leinster comprises several Ireland internationals, Racing has just as many who have represented France, Argentina, South Africa, Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand.
Former Springbok Pat Lambie starts in the No. 10 jersey while another former All Black Joe Rokocoko is on the bench, as is prop Census Johnston of Samoa. France’s international scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud is out injured while Argentine Juan Imhoff misses selection.
This game is another opportunity for France winger Teddy Thomas to show his ability on the right wing after such a brilliant display in the semi-final against Munster.
Irish rugby of course is on a roll and another success by Leinster will be the perfect icing on the cake before Ireland travel to Australia in June for a three-Test series.
Leinster won the title in 2009, 2011, and 2012, apart from winning the Challenge Cup in 2013 and another victory in Bilbao would equal Toulouse’s success of four wins.
It has strength across the park, with playmaker Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney among the backs. In the forwards are Ireland internationals Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Sean Cronin, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Dan Leavy and Fardy.
On paper Leinster appears the stronger of the two.
The final is also almost like redemption for deposed England coach Stuart Lancaster, although he is number two in the club’s coaching hierarchy.
Lancaster could not find a suitable club for about a year after being dumped by England following a poor World Cup campaign and spent time travelling around to learn about coaching methods in other parts of the world.
Since joining Leinster two seasons ago he has regained a lot of respect and it may not surprise many if he is offered a place with a national coaching set-up.
In South Africa, the good news for new Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus is that the national union has decided to scrap a year early the 30-Test cap for selection of overseas-based South Africans.
Originally the union decided to lift the restriction next year but with only 18 Tests in which to prepare the team for next year’s World Cup, the union decided it was best to give Erasmus more breathing space and selection options.
Previously foreign-based Springboks with at least 30 Test caps were only eligible for selection but it never was a popular policy.
England coach Eddie Jones too should not have too many complaints now that New Zealand Rugby has agreed to release Hurricanes captain and blindside flanker Brad Shields from his contractual obligations to travel with the England squad to play the Springboks in three Tests in June.
The 27-year-old is due to join English club Wasps and qualifies to play for England through parentage.
Not surprisingly the decision by Jones to include Shields in his squad has not been well received in both England and New Zealand.