Champions Cup Final: Leinster and Saracens ready to rumble
Leinster keen to give Seán O’Brien a winning send-off, but Saracens will also be motivated
Leinster’s James Lowe celebrates his try against Saracens in the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium in April 2018. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Heineken Champions Cup Final
Leinster Rugby v Saracens
Venue: St James’ Park, Newcastle.
On TV: Live on BT Sport 2/Channel 4/Virgin Media
This is it, then, perhaps the mother of all Heineken Cup final rumbles. The three weeks since these two Euro superpowers teed it up have seemed like an eternity. Now, finally, 5pm can’t come quickly enough.
It’s trophy-harvesting time of the season, and these two do that better than anyone. Leinster have won six major trophies in the last nine years, and Saracens five in the last four. If Leinster are to earn that unprecedented fifth star or if Saracens are to become England’s most successful pro-Europeans with a third title, they’ll have earned it.
The final again goes to new footballing territory, with Marseilles and Tottenham Stadium to follow in the next two years, albeit this may not have the drama of the past week of European football, or maintain the trend of miraculous comebacks.
While the forecast is good, and although each has scored exactly 32 tries each, even line breaks are liable to be as rare as hen’s teeth. But in a capacity crowd liable to feature more rugby neutrals than curious football fans, it could still be absorbingly taut and tight all the way. It will also be massively full-on, and hence truly a minor miracle if either of them are remotely capable of picking the same team next week.
Bullied into submission
With Michael Rhodes, outstanding when Sarries bullied Munster into submission, ruled out, they have reinstated Sean Maitland and promoted Will Skelton, who has rejected overtures to return to Australia after shedding 21kg in 18 months and playing the best rugby of his life. Hence, Maro Itoje moves to the back-row and yet their bench still looks the stronger of the two.
Leinster will have to bring sharper line speed and more physicality than Munster did, and they will, in order to stop Skelton, the Vunipolas et al
Five of Saracens’ starting pack had 10-plus carries against Munster. At least they make little secret of how they play, and Stuart Lancaster’s “Stuesdays” will have been in sharp contrast to the ones before Toulouse.
Leinster will have to bring sharper line speed and more physicality than Munster did, and they will, in order to stop Skelton, the Vunipolas et al, and somehow get to Owen Farrell or the other playmakers to stop their variety of “10”.
They’ll have to better deal with Ben Spencer’s box kicks in fighting for the breaking ball, and, while Leinster have come from behind in three of their previous final wins, it would be preferable to prevent Saracens building scoreboard pressure. They are the ultimate front-runners, happily kicking for territory, forcing the opposition to play from deep, and ramping up their line speed.
Leinster cannot afford to give possession back so easily, and so need to kick more “contestables” while also keeping the ball alive better out of contact. But, again, they’re well capable of this.
Leinster’s de-throning of Saracens in last season’s quarter-final is of far more relevance than Ireland-England in February. Saracens have carried that one for over a year. Inasmuch as they give anything away, you can even feel it in a typically taciturn press conference involving Mark McCall, Brad Barritt and Jamie George on Friday which lasted all of seven minutes.
Podcast rugby final special
Saracens didn’t have Billy Vunipola or Skelton that day, but then Leinster didn’t have Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Seán O’Brien (liable to have a huge game) and Jack Conan (who’s playing the best rugby of his life).
Leinster do have the motivation of that fifth star and giving O’Brien the ideal farewell, albeit Leo Cullen on Friday played down the former – “it’s there in the background” – and Johnny Sexton the latter.
When you know it could be your last time playing with Seán O’Brien, you want to make the most of it because he’s one hell of a player
“I think it’s in the back of our minds, definitely, but it’s not something to talk about. I think we’ve learned some lessons in the past, where if I got back to when we had Nathan Hines, Girvan Dempsey and Malcolm O’Kelly leaving before finals, for example, and we made it all about them and wanting to send them off,” said Sexton.
“It was highly emotional and that can just bear down on you and it’s added pressure, so we haven’t spoken about it at all, but when you know it could be your last time playing with Seán O’Brien, you want to make the most of it because he’s one hell of a player, he’s one hell of a character and we want to send him off on a high. But it’s not going to matter for anything tomorrow that it’s his last game. Sarries aren’t going to try any less.”
So much of this will be on the day. It could come down to one unpredictable bounce of that egg-shaped rugby ball or a decision by Jérome Garcès. One hopes it’s not the latter, but given both sides recycled ruck ball precisely 136 times each in their respective semi-finals (they really seem impossible to separate) it’s inevitable that Garcès will get one or two wrong.
Leinster place a higher premium on discipline, conceding 56 penalties at a tournament low of seven per game. Saracens, more cynical, have conceded 68 at 8.5 per game. That could be a factor too.
One can easily make a strong case for either side winning this match, but it’s still largely guesswork. On the basis that Leinster are going to produce a huge performance, ramping up their defence along with their customary accuracy in possession, then they may just have the X factor in James Lowe, Garry Ringrose and Larmour to do this.
Anyhow, let’s get ready to rumble, finally.
LEINSTER RUGBY: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Scott Fardy, Seán O’Brien, Jack Conan.
Replacements: James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Michael Bent, Rhys Ruddock, Max Deegan, Hugh O’Sullivan, Ross Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin.
SARACENS: Alex Goode; Liam Williams, Alex Lozowski, Brad Barritt (capt), Sean Maitland; Owen Farrell, Ben Spencer; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Titi Lamositele, Will Skelton, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Joe Gray, Richard Barrington, Vincent Koch, Nick Isiekwe, Schalk Burger, Richard Wigglesworth, Nick Tompkins, David Strettle.
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France)
AR1: Romain Poite (France)
AR2: Pascal Gauzère (France)
TMO: Philippe Bonhoure (France)
Previous meetings: (2010-11) Saracens 23 Leinster 25, Leinster 43 Saracens 20. (2017-18, q/f) Leinster 30 Saracens 19.
Leading points scorers: Leinster – Johnny Sexton 48, Ross Byrne 45. Saracens – Owen Farrell 79, Alex Lozowski 25.
Leading try scorers: Leinster – Sean Cronin 6, James Lowe 4. Saracens – Sean Maitland 4, Ben Spencer 3.
Betting (Paddy Power): 11/10 Leinster, 19/1 Draw, 5/6 Saracens. Handicap odds (Leinster +1pt) 10/11 Leinster, 20/1 Draw, 10/11 Saracens.
Forecast: Leinster to win.