Gerry Thornley: Saracens are top dogs but not invincible
Leinster talented enough on pitch and smart enough off it to reclaim title next season
Saracens’ Billy Vunipola scores their second try. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters
Leinster players huddle as they come to terms with their defeat in the Champions Cup final. Photograph: Reuters
The two were so far ahead of the rest it wasn’t funny. The runners-up will feel they couldn’t have done a whole lot more and took the champions to the wire. The problem for everyone else is the ensuing daunting challenge: if financial fair play can’t stop them, how on earth do they stop the juggernaut? That was Sunday’s conclusion to the Premier League saga, but swap the colours at another Premier League venue and it felt like the same story in the wake of Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Saracens are the European standard-bearers once again, champions for the third time in four years. As Leinster had done last year, Saracens did so again by winning all nine matches, a la the first of their back-to-back titles in 2015-16.
That’s three times it’s happened in the last four seasons, prior to which it had never happened once. Such was the competitiveness of the European Cup it was considered nearly impossible to achieve. Suddenly it’s commonplace.
These are changing times at the elite end of European rugby, which has become more established than ever. In the first six years years of what is now the Heineken Champions Cup, there were six different winners. In the first 11 there were eight. In the last dozen years, there have been just five different champions (and in the last nine years just three).
With Toulouse having rediscovered themselves, four of those five reached the semi-finals this season. It seems like more of a closed shop than ever, albeit those serial contenders Clermont – three times beaten finalists – are sure to be contenders next season after lifting their third Challenge Cup. But with the exception of Exeter and Racing, it would be a welcome surprise if someone else emerged.
Above them all though are Saracens who, with three titles in four years, emulated Leinster’s achievement circa 2009 to 2012, if not quite Toulon’s three-in-a-row. This makes it their era, and no less than City, they ain’t going away any time soon. We can be certain Mark McCall and co have already targeted joining Toulouse and Leinster atop the European tree with four titles apiece.
Coning away from St James’ Park, the feeling that Saracens were simply too big and too powerful – Big Nick/Billy/Maro, 49 dominant collisions to Leinster’s 19 and all that – had been re-enforced by their imposing endgame in Leinster territory.
But Leinster may even have found a measure of consolation from yesterday’s review in UCD, and reminders that they certainly had their chances, and like last year’s quarter-final, could have gone about things differently.
Their desire to keep the ball after going 10-0 ahead against 14 men was understandable, but they could perhaps have managed the game a little better in the build-up to Owen Farrell’s opening three-pointer. When Johnny Sexton was pinged for not releasing after being nailed by George Kruis, Jamie George and others in the outside channels jumped in celebration and ran in to swamp Vincent Koch for winning the penalty. It gave them huge energy.
That moment had followed Jack Conan being nailed by Alex Lozowski, but it had been partially caused by one of several loose passes. Leinster’s basic passing and catching has been better and can be again.
Conan might be in a spot of bother for saying Leinster’s attack was predictable, but he had a point. There were less pick-and-go rumbles, or coming hard off “9” than in last season’s quarter-final. Apart from Tadhg Furlong on a couple of occasions, there were less tip-on passes, and also less offloads and nothing like the exchange between James Ryan and Dan Leavy for the key score after half-time over a year ago.
Leinster also seemed pre-occupied with matching Saracens’ famed physicality in running hard and straight, and allied to crisper passing, more tip-ons, chips in behind and a little more depth, they could have either outmanoeuvred or outflanked the Wolf Pack.
But these are all fixable.
The biggest worry is that the IRFU are weakening Leinster a tad too much, with Jack McGrath and Sean O’Brien following Isa Nacewa, Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy through the exit door, and that Sexton is 33 and can’t go on forever, albeit he was superb in the semi-final and durable to the last on Saturday.
The talent pool is not drying up but Leinster, no less than the other provinces, also have to be spot on with their overseas imports. Nacewa was the ultimate example, and there have been many others such as the current assistant coach Felipe Contepomi, right up to and including James Lowe. But invariably some don’t work out so successfully, and considering Joe Tomane didn’t even make the final 23, alas he has to be considered one. At least Jamison Gibson-Park is naturalised next season. Hallelujah!
Next season will also, of course, be a World Cup year, which severely drained the Irish provinces, and especially Leinster, in 2015-16, when they lost five of six pool matches, and there was no Irish side in the knockout stages – indeed no Celtic side.
Then again, following on from the World Cup in 2011-12, Leinster, Munster and Ulster all reached the knockout stages, and the final at Twickenham was contested by Leinster and Ulster in the only all-Irish final.
So you can never tell. Leinster, no less than Munster, can also hold on to the bitter feeling of defeat against Saracens into next season, as Saracens had for over 13 months until last Saturday.
It can be a powerful spur and Leinster, certainly, are talented enough on the pitch and smart enough off it, to come back stronger next season. No one’s saying it’s going to be easy. Not with the Saracens juggernaut top dogs again. But they’re not invincible.