Saracens’ emphatic opening salvo enough to keep Leinster at bay
Province leave themselves too much to do as they are dumped out of Champions Cup
Maro Itoje celebrates Saracens’ win over Leinster. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Leinster 17 Saracens 25
Leinster’s season came crashing to earth on a bare, blustery day in the Aviva echo chamber with a first defeat in 26 games, not only ending hopes of an invincible season but of regaining the Champions Cup and completing a second double in three seasons.
The damage was done in the first half, at the end of which Leinster trailed 22-3 after being stunned by the ferocity and simplicity of the Saracens game plan. In a quarter-final which brought to mind the World Cup final, when scrum dominance was the platform for the Springboks’ victory over England, Saracens’ supremacy was so pronounced at virtually every put-in that it earned them seven penalties and nine points on the scoreboard.
Leinster’s second-half revival also had echoes of their famous comeback win over Northampton in the 2011 final, when recovering from a 22-6 half-time deficit.
Opting to run the ball from deep and, in contrast to the first-half, coming harder onto it off their scrum-half to counter Saracens’ lineout speed, Leinster also managed to get to the edges more and unveil some of their strike plays.
Ryan Baird and Josh van der Flier provided real energy off the bench and two converted tries actually made it a one-score game with over 17 minutes remaining. But at that moment they lost Johnny Sexton and kept being penalised by the lamentable and fastidious Pascal Gauzère, whose penalty count of 15-10 went a long way toward deciding the outcome.
Saracens sprinted out of the blocks and then pulled away. Their pack put the Leinster eight to the sword, not only dominating them at scrum time, but mauling them back at an alarming rate while stifling Leinster’s lineout drive.
They also settled quickly into a comfortable defensive groove which enveloped Leinster’s running game and won the first-half aerial duel, having particularly joy in chasing down Richard Wigglesworth’s box kicks.
Their typically animated bench and support staff had all the moments bar one to roar their approval in a one-sided first-half and Leinster, 2-9 favourites before kick-off, were 5-1 by half-time.
Apart from one bout of pressure when getting their carriers rumbling, and going to their maul in one spell, Leinster didn’t fire a shot in that opening half.
It all started to unravel, well, from the kick-off.
The biggest roar at the Aviva since the resumption was probably that from the Saracens bench when Devin Toner seemed to leave Goode’s kick-off for Conan and the ball bounced off the number 8’s chest.
Sarries generated momentum off a strong scrum and carry by Brad Barritt, and when Andrew Porter was pinged for not rolling away Goode opened the scoring. Porter did exact swift if brief retribution with his strength in the jackal after good line speed and tackle execution on Jamie George by James Ryan, and Sexton levelled with a trickier penalty, especially given the crossfield wind.
There was hardly a breakdown without a penalty from Pascal Gauzère andGoode quickly made it 9-3 after Sexton, for not releasing, and Larmour, for going off his feet, were in turn pinged.
Saracens had their tails up. This was not what Leinster wanted.
The cheers from the Saracens contingent increased when Maro Itoje ended Leinster’s first siege inside the 22 by picking of McGrath’s pass and again when Alex Lewington tackled Lowe into touch.
Barritt then blindsided Porter to force a spillage and although Will Connors injected oomph into Leinster’s defence with a tackle on Tim Swinson, Saracens were also having joy from their kick-chase game. More roars followed from the sideline when Larmour was prevented from gathering another box kick by Wigglesworth.
That earned a scrum on half-way and a penalty, which Elliot Daly landed from inside halfway. Another scrum penalty and monster kick by Elliot swiftly followed after Sexton’s restart went out on the full, to make it 15-3 before the half-hour mark.
Leinster looked shook. Watching on television, their supporters mustn’t have been able to believe their eyes.
Sexton upped the ante by turning down a 40-metre shot at goal in going to Leinster’s maul, and twice more going to the corner, but Saracens backed up a strong defensive maul with an offensive one of their own.
Buoyed by that, Barritt trucked up off the top lineout ball. From the recycle, Jamie George pulled the ball back for Goode, on the wrap, and he shipped the ball on to Duncan Taylor who accelerated into a double tackle by Sean Cronin and Garry Ringrose. Neither was able to prevent the return offload inside to Goode, who dummied Larmour and took Keenan’s tackle to score from the 22. His conversion extended the lead to 22-3 at half-time.
Even when Leinster went up the line and through the phases on the resumption, Mato Itoje was over the ball to earn a penalty. So Leinster couldn’t even earn a modicum of energy, and this was compounded by Larmour failing to gather two more pinpoint box kicks by Wigglesworth as Leinster replaced Cronin and Toner with Ronan Kelleher and Ryan Baird.
Finally, Leinster worked a strike play from a scrum on their own 22. McGrath moved the ball away quickly, which was key, with a skip pass to Henshaw, and Sexton then made over 50 metres from his centre’s pass inside.
Leinster went to the corner and through the phases again for Andrew Porter to be awarded the try after Cian Healy latched on to his fellow prop. At 22-10 Leinster had hope, if only a glimmer.
Baird added ballast with his carrying, but was held up by Alex Lewington and Michael Rhodes, which led to a fifth scrum penalty for Saracens.
With Josh van der Flier injecting pace into both Leinster’s line speed and carrying, a big defensive set culminated in Ryan chopping Billy Vunipola and Baird forcing a spillage. A 17-phase attacking set earned a reversed penalty when Michael Rhodes caught Sexton late and high, even if the officials only deemed it the latter. Monsieur Gauzère was seemingly more concerned about breakdown transgressions than someone’s head being taken off.
From the lineout, Sexton regathered himself to orchestrate a sweet strike move. With his first touch Rory O’Loughlin took Jamison Gibson-Park’s long pass and pulled it back for Sexton, who delivered a beauty in front of Larmour for him to speed over the line without even being touched.
Sexton converted but, hobbling and in pain, was replaced by Ross Byrne.
Again though Leinster fell foul of Gauzère and the third of three successive penalties, but Goode failed to make it a two-score game from near the touchline.
Larmour nearly broke free but his attempted one-handed offload to van der Flier went forward. Cue a sixth Saracens scrum penalty, but Daly also missed the target from about 45 metres.
But a seventh followed when Gibson-Park overcooked a long skip pass to Conan, who knocked on. This time Goode sealed the deal.
Saracens are in the semi-finals again, however much financial cheating helped get them to this point in the first place.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Goode pen 0-3; 6 mins Sexton pen 3-3; 9 mins Goode pen 3-6; 13 mins Goode pen 3-9; 25 mins Daly pen 3-12; 28 mins Daly pen 3-15; 37 mins Goode try and con 3-22; (half-time 3-22); 49 mins Porter try, Sexton con 10-22; 62 mins Larmour try, Sexton con 17-22; 79 mins Goode pen 17-25.
Leinster: Jordan Larmour; Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Will Connors, Jack Conan. Replacements: Ronan Kelleher for Cronin, Ryan Baird for Toner (both 43 mins), Josh van der Flier for Connors (53 mins), Ed Byrne for Healy (57 mins), Jamison Gibson-Park for McGrath (62 mins), Rory O’Loughlin for Henshaw (63 mins), Ross Byrne for Sexton (66 mins), Michael Bent for Porter (73 mins),
Saracens: Elliot Daly; Alex Lewington, Duncan Taylor, Brad Barritt (capt), Sean Maitland; Alex Goode, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje, Tim Swinson, Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola. Replacements: Callum Hunter-Hill for Swinson (64 mins), Richard Barrington for Mako Vunipola, Aled Davies for Wigglesworth (both 69 mins), Calum Clark for Rhodes (73 mins). Not used : Tom Woolstencroft, Alec Clarey, Manu Vunipola, Dominic Morris.
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France).