Saracens dethrone Leinster in Champions Cup final
Defending champions overpowered as Saracens secure a third title
Saracens’ Billy Vunipola scores the crucial try despite James Lowe and Luke McGrath of Leinster. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Saracens 20 Leinster 10
The drive for five will have to be resumed next year. Leinster gave it the good fight, defending heroically and they kept probing and probing until the last. But having led 10-0 by the 34th minute, thereafter they were kept scoreless and ultimately Saracens’ sheer unrelenting power game wore them down.
It would have worn down any other team in Europe, for Leinster remain clearly ahead of the rest, and remain the only side to have beaten them in Europe in the last two seasons. But Saracens have deservedly reclaimed their place atop European rugby by winning the Heineken Champions Cup for the third time in four years.
Physicality is the buzz word of the modern game, and while the lower levels of the press box in St James’ Park may have skewed one’s impression, the levels of big hits and collisions seemed to be almost at another level.
Like two heavyweight punchers in the middle of the ring who weren’t of a mind to take a backward step, they slugged it out toe to toe, trading heavy blows, and while both teams were forced onto the ropes it wasn’t until the final quarter that Saracens landed the most telling blows.
Their battery of big carriers were hard to contain, especially Billy Vunipola (who made three big interceptions), Will Skelton and Bard Barritt, who continually put the English champions on the front foot. Maro Itoje was everywhere, often illegally, their scrumhalves and Owen Farrell hardly put a foot wrong, Alex Lozowski was forever dangerous, Liam Williams made some big players and they were also indebted to two huge shifts from their replacement props Richard Barrington and, especially, Vincent Koch after their joint early introduction.
Leinster had their share of possession and territory, and chances - or at any rate half-chances - which they will rue, along with not putting the ball out of play with the 40 minutes up and leading 10-3 before conceding an equalising try.
Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Tadhg Furlong, winning his 100th cap, put in huge shifts, as did the immense James Ryan, who never stopped carrying or tackling or taking a step back, while Scott Fardy was arguably Leinster’s best player.
Luke McGrath kicked, passed and tackled his socks off, Johnny Sexton tried everything, Jordan Larmour and James Lowe looked dangerous, and Rob Kearney made their best break of the match. But for the most part Saracens’ defence was an all-enveloping suffocating cloak of red.
The odd shower or two had relented come kick-off, and a blue sky and swathes of blue in the stands greeted the arrival of the two teams after a nerve-jangling loud build-up.
Setting the tone between two teams who place such huge store by their box-kicking and chasing game, both Kearney and Alex Goode were tested in the opening exchanges and both coped comfortably.
Encouragingly for the flow of the game, Jerome Garces (or most probably Romain Poite) penalised Saracens for encroaching within 10 metres of a lineout before Sean Cronin’s throw-in. Sexton unerringly landed the 38 metre penalty.
Sexton then snaffled a breaking ball after Lowe chased McGrath’s box kick and they went through the phases again, before Larmour’s grubber was blocked. Brilliant counter-rucking by Jack Conan and others forced a turnover, but Itoje and Billy Vunipola were jointly immovable in the jackal.
Back came Saracens off their lineout, ominously generating quick go-forward ball, as Williams stepped Lowe before, a few phases later being corralled by a combination of Kearney, Lowe and Furlong, who was everywhere early on.
When McGrath tackled Goode at full stretch and forced a spillage, Larmour picked up, stepped Billy Vunipola, chipped ahead and kicked on. He didn’t make the pick-up but was wrongly adjudged to have knocked on by Pascal Gauzère.
Against that, Mako Vunipola had the nudge on Furlong at a scrum, before the tighthead plugged a hole which Alex Lozowski threatened to quicken through, and when Owen Farrell’s offload went to hand, Williams kicked in behind dangerously, forcing McGrath to concede a line-out inside the Leinster 22.
Nearing the end of the first quarter Fardy was adjudged to have knocked on at the line-out, and Saracens went for one of their power plays, Billy Vunipola off the base and Barritt trucked it up through the middle, but Barritt was then pingned by Poite for leading with his shoulder into Fardy. It felt like a big moment.
Leinster had a nice second phase move after Robbie Henshaw trucked up line-out ball from Ryan at the front, Sexton doing his wraparound before giving Sean Cronin a gallop with his deft inside pass. Then they went through the phases, but into an impenetrable, immovable red wall, and Leinster were again grateful for Fardy dislodging the ball from Maitland in the tackle.
The game’s biggest play of the first-half was arguably Kearney’s clean break from 40 metres out, backed up by fending Goode before eventually being hauled down.
Although Saracens defended their line through the phases, Itoje was binned for twice going offside in a sequence when Garces thrice had his arm out for that offence in the same drive. With Saracens also losing both first-choice props, Mako Vunipola and Titi Lamositele at the same juncture, Leinster had to opt for the scrum rather than Sexton tap over the penalty for 6-0. That would have been a reprieve for Saracens. The Blue Army roared. This felt even bigger.
Saracens opted to defend the scrum with seven, and just about did, but after Conan picked and charged, and O’Brien did the same, Furlong plunged for the line and reached it. Sexton’s conversion made it 10-0.
But Saracens’ response, even with 14, was significant. Leinster were relieved when Fardy won a turnover penalty against Vincent Koch for not releasing. But Lozowski shot up and nailed Conan with a big hit, and when George Kruis did likewise to Sexton and Koch was sharp over the ball, Farrell landed the penalty for not releasing against Sexton.
Worse for Leinster, after McGrath opted for a box kick with the clock in the red Kearney was trapped and pinged for not rolling away, and Farrell went up the line and resorted to their power game. There was an inevitability about the try, and although McGrath brilliantly held up the charging Jamie George, when Farrell deftly tipped on Spencer’s skip pass Maitland scored untouched.
Farrell, of course, nailed the touchline conversion, and while it was no surprise to find the side’s dead level at half-time, it was the Saracens players who trotted off with the bigger spring in their step.
That said, Leinster were first to knock on the door in the second half after Saracens pulled down a maul on halfway and Sexton found touch 12 metres out. After Furlong had ball ripped from him by Kruis, Leinster knocked again, and Lowe came infield to take McGrath’s pass and offload to Sexton but, alas, Ringrose stepped infield when it looked like Cronin and Larmour had the overlap out wide, after which Williams shot out of the line to nail Ringrose and then jump to his feet to win a turnover.
Saracens’ turn. It was that type of game. Leinster weren’t helped by James Tracy’s crooked throw with his first act. Saracens hammered at the Leinster defensive line, Itoje leading with his forearm when catching Sexton high and Leinster were first indebted to Healy’s work in the jackal in earning a relieving penalty against Kruis for not releasing and then Scott Fardy for snaffling a loose ball. At this point, Fardy, Henshaw and Sexton were all receiving treatment.
Saracens’ monstrous straight running was beginning to take its toll. After a big break by Jackson Wray, they were hammering at the Leinster line again. Somehow the charging Skelton and Itoje were held up in turn, but while the review didn’t reveal a try, Fardy was sinbinned for offside.
Unlike Leinster, Saracens opted for the tap-over penalty, Farrell making it 13-10. When Maitland and Itoje flailed at an airborne Kearney, the latter was sailing closer to the wind than normal.
So it was Leinster’s turn, as they went up the line and through the phases, but Billy Vunipola intercepted Sexton’s pass at the second attempt, and Williams kicked ahead to force the covering Larmour to concede the attacking line-out 30 metres.
Saracens launched their battery of big runners, then forced a scrum penalty and opted for another put-in. Although Leinster held the scrum up, Vunipola picked from the back and charged through the tackles of Rhys Ruddock, McGrath, Sexton and Lowe to reach out for the line. Farrell’s conversion made it 20-10 and that was effectively game over.
Vunipola picked off his third intercept, this time off McGrath, before departing to the predictable mixture of loud cheers from the Saracens fans - long since growing in voice - and boos from some of the Leinster supporters - long since subdued.
This punishing, exhausting final ended with another sequence of punishing, exhausting passages of ball in play, Saracens charging at the Leinster defence but mostly content to charge up in defence and make hits. Tellingly it was all done deep in Leinster territory.
There was no shame in losing this final. Leinster died with their boots on. It wasn’t on the same scale as England’s shuddering win at the Aviva in February, but coming in a World Cup year it was another example of how pulverising, unwavering physicality is always hard for Irish sides to out-smart. Then again, it’s worth bearing in mind that this Saracens side are probably better than England!
But that’s for another day. This one belonged to Saracens.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Sexton pen 3-0; 33 mins Furlong try, Sexton con 10-0; 39 mins Farrell pen 10-3; 40 (+2 mins) Maitland try, Farrell con 10-10; (half-time 10-10); 59 mins Farrell pen 10-13; 67 mins B Vunipola try, Farrell con 10-20.
Leinster: 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, Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan. Replacements: James Tracy for Cronin (52 mins), Jack McGrath for Healy, Rhys Ruddock for O’Brien (both 62 mins), Michael Bent for Furlong (70 mins), Max Deegan for Toner (75 mins). Not used: 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: Richard Barrington for M Vunipola, Vincent Koch for Lamositele (both 30 mins), Richard Wigglesworth for Spencer (56 mins), Nick Isiekwe for Skelton (62 mins), Schalk Burger for B Vunipola (74 mins). Not used _ Joe Gray, Nick Tompkins, David Strettle. Sinbinned: Itoje (30-40 mins).
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France)