Champions Cup final: Blue on the Tyne as Leinster rugby fans gather

Irish supporters aware of tough task facing province against powerful Saracens side

 

A sea of blue swept into Newcastle as thousands of Leinster fans arrived in the city in the build-up to the Champions Cup final.

For one weekend St James’ Park, usually the cathedral of the Toon Army, has become the epicentre of European rugby.

Leinster arrive as the reigning champions, knowing a win would see them become the first team to lift the trophy five times.

But Saracens come with substantial pedigree as well, having been victorious in 2016 and 2017, and the weight of the task ahead of the Irish side seemed to be on the minds of many of the Leinster fans.

Paul (68) and Kay Kelly (63) made the journey from Birr, Co Offaly, in their campervan. Arriving in Newcastle on Thursday, Mr Kelly said he had been following Leinster for 50 years.

“It’ll be a 50/50 game, it’ll hinge on the forwards and whoever wins the forwards battle. Saracens’ defence is good, but ours is good too – it’ll be close and a good match,” he said.

“I was really pleased to see the line-up when it was announced – it was what I was hoping for.

“We came over on Thursday; we like Newcastle, although it’s not quite as good as Bilbao where we were last year. We’ll still enjoy ourselves though, we’ve come over in our campervan,” Mr Kelly said.

“The atmosphere in the fan zone is great – we’re meeting lots of people, and of course the Irish know how to have a good time.”

Last night Clermont Auvergne defeated La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup 36-16, kicking off the festival of rugby in the city.

This included a fan village being set up on the picturesque Newcastle Gateshead Quayside, with the famous Tyne Bridge looming overhead.

Here fans of all clubs mixed in a buoyant atmosphere, with music playing and pints flowing, along with lots of locals who had come to enjoy the experience.

Other events taking place included a zip wire over the Tyne, a food market in the city centre and other fan zones nearer the stadium.

Ray Minion (62) from Kilkenny, was also feeling a little apprehensive about the challenge Leinster were facing.

“I don’t feel overconfident, probably a 50/50 game. It’ll come down to the bounce of the ball and the referee’s decisions, it’ll be very close,” he said.

“I think it’ll come down to decisions and penalties, two very good defences, and a decision here or there good swing it either way,” Mr Minion said.

“I was very happy with the line-up – it’s the strongest team we could hope for. Dan Leavy is a very big lossm but you can only play what’s there.

“We came over on Friday and it’s great, a really beautiful city. It’s my first time here so looking forward to going to St James’ Park,” he said.

“I’ve watched Leinster play in many different countries and stadiums, but there’s always something special about coming somewhere new for the first time.”

With such an array of international talent on show in both teams and an anticipated 50,000-plus crowd, many of the fans said it felt like a test match in the build-up.

A lot has happened in the sport in the seven months since this season’s Champions Cup began, with Ireland beating the All Blacks but then losing their Six Nations crown and Wales romping home with the Grand Slam.

Daniel Parks (34) from Gateshead, said he was proud Newcastle was hosting such a big event and he hoped it would boost the profile of rugby in the region.

“I love rugby and often go to see the [Newcastle] Falcons play, but compared to football it barely gets a look in here.

“I hope people here see the great atmosphere, how all the fans mix together and get a taste for what rugby has to offer.

“We bought tickets for the final last year, so I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time,” he said.

“I won’t say it too loud, but I think I’ll be cheering on Saracens, I don’t want the Irish players getting a boost before the World Cup.”