Dan Leavy leads the way as Leinster dethrone Saracens
Defending champions well beaten by clinical Leinster in Champions Cup quarter-final
Leinster’s Dan Leavy scores his try. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Leinster 30 Saracens 19
It’s was a victory that’ll command some elbow room in the pantheon of great Leinster performances in Europe, one for the ages, quite simply because of the challenge posed by the two-time and defending champions Saracens, carried out on their shield, so to speak.
The English club produced a marvellously defiant performance, debunking the notion of a post Grand Slam hangover for several of their number. Saracens gave everything, rigorously examining Leinster’s credentials as their potential successors in every facet of the game, across every blade of the Aviva stadium pitch.
For Leinster to finish on top in this wonderfully entertaining tussle spoke volumes for the calibre of the performance; the vibrancy in attack, the resolution in defence, that was stretched to breaking point at times. Perhaps the difference between the teams was Leinster’s superior creativity and the scalpel like sharpness of the incisions.
They identified the areas where Saracens’ defence was at its thinnest, often around the rucks, occasionally vulnerable to the inside pass complemented by intelligent trail-lines, and in the 20-minutes after half-time, producing rugby at a level with which Saracens could not cope. It transformed the game from an epic contest, to one where the outcome, while not a foregone conclusion, was pretty clearly defined.
Leinster piled on 18-points, through tries from outstanding Dan Leavy and James Lowe with Jonathan Sexton converting one and kicking a penalty, while Fergus McFadden landed the second conversion taking the home side out to a 30-12 lead. Saracens never gave up, kept playing, but at crucial moments made mistakes, generally enforced by a thumping tackle or a Leinster player insinuating their way into the breakdown.
This victory, though, was as much a homily to defence as it was to Leinster’s clinical nature in taking the majority of the opportunities presented. In a superlative collective effort several players stood out, particularly a couple of tyros in man-of-the-match Leavy and the outstanding James Ryan. Both took the game to their opponents, physically and with an intelligence and nuance that marks them as the brilliant players that they are.
The pack provided a brilliant platform, particularly in the set piece with Ryan’s intervention just before the interval a seminal moment. He did enough to disrupt Nick Isiekwe, forcing a knock-on, after Saracens twice went to the corner with penalties and the game delicately poised at 13-12. Leinster escaped to the changing room with a spring in their step.
Sexton was at his belligerent best, combative and unyielding but also kicking and distributing beautifully. He was well served by Luke McGrath with entire three quarter line enjoying moments that made a huge difference, especially James Lowe and Garry Ringrose.
Leinster’s riposte to Saracens initial dominance of territory and possession – it was a trend that would never abate in those opening 40-minutes – was a classic illustration of the potency and quality that the team possesses. The home side turned over ball in their 22, Ringrose’s vision identified the opportunity immediately, linking with Nacewa, who shifted the ball to James Lowe on the touchline.
The New Zealander bumped Liam Williams in the tackle, and as the cover closed linked inside to Nacewa, the Leinster captain managing to skirt the attempted cover of Jackson Wray and Richard Wigglesworth, before drawing Alex Goode and allowing Ringrose, the catalyst, an unmolested canter under the posts.
It was a gorgeous snippet of counter-attacking rugby that defines the team when at their best. Sexton added the conversion and it should have allowed the home side to settle nicely to the task in hand. Instead it was Saracens, with the exception of one or two other Leinster cameos that dominated territory and possession, properly representing their pedigree as two-time and defending champions.
First they had to survive one other slightly hairy moment when Rob Kearney galloped into space as Leinster got outside the visiting defence again, but his chip through bounced laterally into touch; if it had stayed infield, Saracens were in trouble.
They maximised that modicum of good fortune and gradually built a beachhead through the hard carrying of their big forwards – Mako Vunipola was superb – and an ability to offload before or through the tackle. Owen Farrell kicked four penalties as Leinster’s discipline deserted them at times.
There was an element of provocation. Sexton has been the subject of some borderline/late tackles and how Richard Wigglesworth - who jumped into him with his shoulder - didn’t get a yellow card beggared belief.
The visitors were willing to sacrifice conceding three points rather than seven and referee Jerome Garces must have been on the cusp of brandishing a card. Leinster collared Wray from a scrum, turned over possession with a great counter-ruck and after a series or surges Saracens were guilty of a professional foul to prevent the ball coming back under the shadow of their posts.
Sexton kicked penalty but then the outhalf was guilty of a petulant gesture as he pulled the ball out of Farrell’s hand as the two converged when running back to the halfway line. Garces awarded a penalty and Marcelo Bosch thumped it over from the halfway line.
After half an hour Saracens had 73 per cent possession and 68 per cent territory, staggering numbers for an away side in a match of this magnitude.
Leinster brought a new energy and purpose after the interval and it was to have a seismic effect on the outcome. Kearney made a superb break, Leavy and McGrath were involved and Saracens were eventually forced to concede a penalty which Sexton kicked.
On 47 minutes, Leinster had their second try with Ryan demonstrating a wonderful appreciation of Leavy’s clever line; the timing of the pass and the run allowed the flanker to indulge in a little hitch-kick as he raced under the posts. It’s what Leavy had been doing all game, finding joy up the guts of the opposition.
Leinster upped the intensity and speed of the defensive line and also managing to close off those outer channels by shooting up hard; it takes trust and timing. Nacewa and Leavy both made breaks but the moves petered out. That is until two monumental carries from Ryan ended up in a try for Lowe; the New Zealander powered onto a short ball and while stopped initially, with a little help from some burly friends was driven over the line.
Kearney was penalised for a tackle on Liam Williams and catching him with his shoulder; the Welsh international slipped which didn’t help the contact point. Replacement Blair Cowan was then mauled over the line and Farrell kicked a superb conversion to make it 30-19.
Garces missed a blatant knock-on by Goode but allowed play to continue and Leinster ended up scrambling furiously in defence, the pressure eventually relieved after the visitors were penalised for crossing. Devin Toner received a yellow card for some illegal footsie at a ruck and replacement Rhys Ruddock made one crucial intervention as Saracens refused to bow down until the final whistle.
Scarlets arrive in Dublin in two weeks in what promises to be another mega-tussle. Leinster will hope that a statistical omen from their previous European triumphs, in beating the defending champions in 2009 and 2011, can be maintained in 2018. The summit is in sight again but for the moment they can luxuriate in a brilliant victory.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins: Ringrose try, Sexton conversion, 7-0; 11: Farrell penalty, 7-3; 15: Farrell penalty, 7-6; 20: Sexton penalty, 10-6; 26: Farrell penalty, 10-9; 33: Sexton penalty, 13-9; 34: Bosch penalty, 13-12. Half-time: 13-12. 42: Sexton penalty, 16-12; 47: Leavy try, Sexton conversion, 23-12; 58: Lowe try, McFadden conversion, 30-12; 63: Cowan try, Farrell conversion, 30-19.
Leinster: R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, I Nacewa (capt), J Lowe; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; S Fardy, D Leavy, J Murphy. Replacements: J McGrath for Healy 53 mins; J Tracy for Cronin 59 mins; A Porter for Furlong 64 mins; R Ruddock for Fardy 64 mins; N McCarthy for L McGrath 64 mins; J Carbery for Sexton 68 mins; R O’Loughlin for Nacewa 78 mins; M Deegan for Murphy 78 mins.
Saracens: A Goode; L Williams, M Bosch, B Barritt (capt), S Maitland; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, J Figallo; M Itoje, G Kruis; N Isiekwe, S Burger, J Wray. Replacements: S Brits for George 51 mins; , B Spencer for Wigglesworth 69 mins; A Lozowski for Bosch 59 mins; Cowan for Urger 59 mins; C Wyles for Williams 63 mins; T Lamositele for Figallo 64 mins; R Barrington for Vunipola 76 mins; D Day for Kruis 76 mins.
Referee: Jérome Garcés (France).
Yellow card: Devin Toner 74 mins.