Gerry Thornley: Leinster and Saracens are a cut above the rest
Cream rises to the top in Europe again as glass ceiling continues to frustrate Munster
Johnny Sexton during Leinster’s 30-12 win over Saracens in Dublin. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty
Look through the Heineken Champions Cup roll of honour and the best team invariably lifts the trophy. That is sure to be the case on May 11th in St James’ Park, albeit this will be one of the hardest finals to call because the gap between them appears wafer thin, even if the one between two best teams in the competition and the rest is so stark.
In this the demarcation lines have rarely been so clear. If you liken it to a house, wherein those consigned to the Challenge Cup are in the basement, before going up a level to the teams evicted in the Champions Cup pool stages, and then the quarter-finals and the semi-finals, Munster are now well established in the penultimate floor. It’s just that Leinster and Saracens are in the penthouse suites.
These two have been the champions for the last three years and they have been virtually the standout picks from the off. When Saracens were winning their first title three seasons ago, Leinster were at their lowest, post-World Cup ebb. A year on a rejuvenated Leinster came within one game of making this the final pairing when losing 27-22 to Clermont in Lyon.
Last season, Saracens were experiencing something of a post-Lions dip when beaten by a Leinster side then at full throttle in the quarter-finals at the Aviva Stadium, on the back of Ireland winning the Grand Slam at Twickenham.
This time around, on the back of England beating Ireland in Dublin, Saracens are back with a vengeance, having negotiated the smoother passage to the final. They’ve arguably had the easier route too, and it’s worth noting that both sides have scored 32 tries in their eight games to date.
With Johnny Sexton, Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw back in harness, Leinster were every bit as emphatic in beating Toulouse as Saracens were the previous day in disposing of Munster. One could argue that Toulouse left a few scores behind and undoubtedly made some curious decisions in their use of penalties.
Yet it could also be said that Toulouse fired more shots than Munster, which made the achievement of keeping the French team tryless for the first time this season (having come within one play of doing so at the RDS in January) all the more commendable.
It’s also no coincidence that the two finalists boast the two best outhalves in the northern hemisphere, two serial winners and points accumulators of Lions Test standards. Sexton (four winners medals) and Owen Farrell (two) are already among a select group of only five starting outhalves to have lifted the trophy more than once, the others being Jonny Wilkinson, Ronan O’Gara and Alex King, who did so twice apiece.
So the two sides arrive in Newcastle pretty much at the zenith of their considerable powers. These are, as one writer noted, more efficient than effervescent, and while it may not be the most fluent final ever, it is sure to be a compelling clash between two superbly coached teams who like to dominate their opponents but for once may struggle to do so. They’ll each be tested in a way they rarely have been this season.
The bookies can’t pick it and many make it a scratch game.
For Munster, there is no shame in being one of the best four teams in the competition in each of the last three seasons. That is no mean achievement.
Only seven sides have reached the semi-finals in the last three years, and Leinster have been the only other ever-presents in the last four.
But coupled with four other semi-final defeats since they last lifted the trophy 11 years ago, that must only make Munster’s frustration more acute. What’s more, the manner of Saturday’s defeat in Coventry made that glass ceiling appear even more impenetrable.
Two years ago against Saracens, they were without Conor Murray and played in a tactical straitjacket. Last season they didn’t turn up against Racing in the first half-hour, be it in some way due to their preceding trek to South Africa or whatever reason.
This time, losing Keith Earls in addition to Joey Carbery denied them their joint leading try scorers en route to Saturday’s semi-final, which at least again demonstrated the improvement in their defence this season. But to be denied the two backs who bring the most X-factor to their game was cruel.
Munster can’t swell their squad by signing players to the same extent as Saracens. Operating with a smaller playing budget, nor do Munster have a benefactor who can also engage in property investments with some of their leading players. To have any chance against a team like Saracens, they have to be at full strength.
Even so, exactly as two years ago, Saracens softened Munster up in the first half in leading by three points at the break, before pulling clear and winning by 16. The sense of déjà vu in the losing dressing-room must have been almost overwhelming. You wonder how often they can keep earning themselves these chances, not to mention finally take one.
For in the immediate aftermath of another somewhat chastening defeat, it’s hard to see how Munster can bridge that gap. However, Johann van Graan, Carbery, Murray and others have committed themselves to the cause. They just have to grow from within. They’ve no other choice.
It will be all the harder to again re-adjust their sights, but it may be that lifting a trophy for the first time since 2011 could be the confidence-injecting, stepping stone to breaking through that glass ceiling as well as constituting a serious accomplishment in its own right.
They came within a point of Leinster in last season’s Pro14 semi-finals. Admittedly, as things stand, Munster may yet be faced with the same daunting task again.