Champions Cup final: Leinster v Saracens
Kick-off: 5pm, Saturday. Venue: St James' Park. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will start at 4pm. On TV: Live on BT Sport, Virgin Media Sport and Channel 4.
Allowing for the long-terms absence of Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy, retaining an unchanged starting XV is a statement of Leinster’s relative health for their day of destiny with Saracens at St James’ Park tomorrow, although Leo Cullen maintained there were still some difficult conversations with players.
Uppermost amongst these were assuredly those with Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter and Caelan Doris. Having featured in that semi-final win over Toulouse, Byrne and Doris miss out due to the decision to promote Jack McGrath to the bench and the return of the fit-again Rhys Ruddock, while despite being fit again, Porter misses out to Michael Bent, who is retained in the matchday 23.
“There’s a couple of guys who had to get some bad news this week, even though the 15 is the same there were a couple of tweaks along the way and a couple of changes on the bench as well,” said Cullen at Leinster’s eve-of-final press conference in Newcastle United’s iconic home ground today.
“Some of the selection decisions certainly weren’t taken lightly. It means a huge amount to the wider group, a lot of guys that aren’t involved in the 23 prepared the team this week and it is also hugely important to the overall outcomes and the levels of performance that we see at the weekends.
“So some tough decisions. This 15 did a good job in the semi-final, there’s always temptations as coaches to tweak with that but we’re going with the same team.”
Specifically explaining the preference for the more experienced McGrath and Bent on the bench, Cullen said: “I think sometimes, with a team like Saracens, with a very strong set-piece, Jack has a lot of experience playing at the highest level and in terms of the way we think the game will unfold, his strengths suit this challenge.
“Andrew Porter’s a little bit unlucky, he picked up the injury and hasn’t really featured the last few weeks. He has trained fully this week and was available but it was just a little bit too tight with him. Michael Bent, he’s been so important to us over the course of the season, you think back to some of the games when we’re down 15, 20 players and he’s come up with five scrum penalties. He’s been hugely important to the success of the group over the course of the season.”
Cullen hinted that there was a slight gamble in naming Seán Cronin, the tournament’s joint leading try scorer who was forced off in the 34th minute of the semi-final with a calf strain.
Asked whether Cronin was fully fit, Cullen smiled and said: “We’ll soon find out, yeah. When a guy picks up an injury in the semi-final, his calf, we knew it was going to be a little bit tight with Seán but he’s trained okay this week and hopefully he’s good to go. You never have 100 per cent certainty but for a final, you take a little bit of a chance. But he’s trained this week so hopefully he comes through okay.”
Jamison Gibson-Park's hamstring at least spared Cullen and the Leinster think-tank their usual riddle of which two from three 'non-EU' players to pick, and the presence of James Lowe assuredly gives the reigning European champions more undoubted X-factor from the start, as well as saving Cullen the conversation he had with the winger when omitting him from last season's final.
“James brings a lot to the team I think. There’s his own ability but I think the energy he gives everybody as well. I think the players can tell you more about him on the field, but you can see he finished his try incredibly well,” said Cullen in reference to his typically strong, through-a-brick-wall finish against Toulouse.
"I thought we were a little bit unlucky with the other try that he scored just before half-time for that blocking with Jack Conan. It could easily have been given as well."
“But yeah, you could see that he’s a very strong finisher, he’s very unpredictable in terms of what he can deliver. Yeah, he’s been great in games.
“Some of the conversations we’ve had last year and this year with Jamison and Scott and himself, it’s been a sub-plot every week in terms of who is going to be involved, so yeah we spend a lot of time trying to map it out and talking to them and the three of them I have to say are outstanding people.
“When they get picked it’s almost that they’re gutted for the one that misses out, so that’s what James actually said to me, that he was so gutted for Jamison when he picked up that injury.
“But anyway, it is what it is. All three of those characters have been outstanding in terms of what they’ve added to Leinster, and hopefully there will be many more games for them.”
Johnny Sexton is one of a select band of players along with Devin Toner and Cian Healy who is seeking a fifth winners' medal after playing a leading role in all four of their previous triumphs. But in the immediate aftermath of his seamless and inspired return to the Leinster lineup for the first time in the calendar year in the semi-final, he described the challenge represented as "the biggest battle of our careers".
Nothing in their analysis of the English champions or preparations this past two weeks has altered his view.
“We’ve had two weeks to prepare for this now so we’ve had a good look at them. You look at the teamsheet and they’ve got back a lot of the guys they were missing last year. They’re going to make it tough for us but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
While Sexton admitted that Leo Cullen’s experience of finals as a player and head coach was important, he added: “It’s more important that he knows Leinster the way he does, and knows the players and what makes us tick.
“I think it’s hard to compare finals. We were in a different place last year, we were playing against a different type of team, and it’s very hard to draw comparisons. We’ve taken this week for what it is. We worked really hard last week, and maybe it’s been a little bit of a lighter week than we normally would have had for a big game like this.
“But that’s where it is, it just shows he knows us now, in terms of being fresh, being ready to go and bouncing on your toes before the game is important. We have made mistakes in the previous seasons, maybe being tired for certain games but we are pretty fresh and ready to go.”
The pre-match captain’s run is more important for the kickers than anyone else, and Sexton had just finished acquainting himself with the environs of St James’ Park for the first time.
“For me it’s goal-kicking, restarts, getting your bearings; just getting used to the place, getting used to the surface. There’s a bit of a slope on the pitch (from halfway line), just minor things like that, which tomorrow could be key.”
Likewise, Luke McGrath was also finding his bearings. “For me I suppose it’s just box-kicking from each corner, it doesn’t seem like the wind plays too much of a part tomorrow, its a kind of closed stadium, but just being out there, it’s an incredible stadium. I’m looking forward to it. It’s perfect conditions for kicking, and hopefully it will be tomorrow.”
Leinster: Kearney; Larmour, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe; Sexton (Capt), McGrath; Healy, Cronin, Furlong; Toner, Ryan; Fardy, O'Brien 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, 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.