The stage is set. Bilbao’s San Mamés Stadium awaits. Now cast your eyes over the star attractions
European Challenge Cup + Champions Cup finals, from Friday 11 May, 8pm, BT Sport
On 11 and 12 May, Spain hosts the European Champions and Challenge Cup finals for the first time as Leinster, Racing 92, Gloucester and Cardiff Blues do battle for European supremacy.
Kicking off on Friday night is the Challenge Cup final between two-time winners Gloucester and 2010 winners Cardiff Blues, in a rematch of last season’s quarter-final. That night, with home advantage, the English team were victorious – only to come up short aginst Stade Français in the final. This year, on neutral ground, the Welsh wizards will be out for revenge.
Less than 24 hours later, the Champions Cup showpiece final rolls into town. With a hat-trick of titles under their belt, Irish heavyweights Leinster have never lost at this stage of the competition and will be confident of making it a fantastic four to match Toulouse’s record haul.
By contrast, this will be Racing’s second attempt at glory, having fallen at the final hurdle to Saracens in 2016. But the Parisian galácticos, with their scintillating mix of Southern Hemisphere superstars and the best French talent, know they have the capacity to win and the momentum of their push for the Pro14 title could just power them to victory.
Here we highlight the four men who could make all the difference in Bilbao.
Johnny Sexton, Leinster
The consummate puppetmaster. If Leinster are to be victorious, you can guarantee it’ll be thanks to their unflappable fly-half pulling the strings – and pulling the opposition out of shape. Now 32, the talismanic No10 just gets better with age. He masterminded Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam victory this season, including a monster 40-metre drop goal to win the opening match away in France – a painful memory that will no doubt still be fresh in the mind of Racing’s French contingent. Don’t bet against a similarly dramatic intervention from Sexton making the difference in the final.
Teddy Thomas, Racing 92
Hot-stepping, fast as lightning, his mighty dreadlocks in a man bun – that’s French international Teddy Thomas. The fleet-footed winger has been leaving hapless defenders in his wake throughout the competition (a whopping 22 times in six games according to the stats nerds) and should have bagged a first-half hat-trick in the semi-final with Munster, only to selflessly pass to a teammate having done all the hard work himself. With his dazzling footwork, the 24-year-old conjures tries out of thin air – so expect fireworks whenever he gets the ball.
Ross Moriarty, Gloucester
The Cherry and Whites are overflowing with mercurial talent. On their day, the twinkle-toed and unpredictable Henry Trinder, Charlie Sharples, Billy Burns and Owen Williams can dismantle any opposition. But they can just as easily go missing in crunch matches and they don’t come much crunchier than a European final. In barnstorming flanker Ross Moriarty, however, they have a proven game-breaker and test match-quality player – so long as head coach Johan Ackermann forgives him for signing for Dragons (he’ll leave in the summer) and starts him against Cardiff.
Josh Navidi, Cardiff Blues
Dreadlocks seem to be a trend at this year’s European final weekend, but the somewhat scruffier barnet on Josh Navidi shouldn’t distract from a player who’s growing in stature game by game. A sterling season in the Wales back row has been followed up by impressive club showings, with the flanker totting up a monumental 96 tackles in the Challenge Cup – the second highest in the competition. He’ll need to put his body on the line to stop Gloucester’s attack in Bilbao and could also prove the difference at the other end of the field, providing the platform for a famous Welsh win.
Live finals on Virgin TV
European Rugby Challenge Cup Final
Cardiff Blues v Gloucester, Friday 11 May, 7.15pm, BT Sport 2/HD (CH 532/528)
European Rugby Champions Cup Final
Leinster v Racing 92, Saturday 12 May, 4pm, BT Sport 2/HD (CH 532/528)
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