Leinster revenge mission easier now

Shell of Sarries team weakened by Farrell suspension

READY TO ROCK: Leinster boss Leo Cullen with Jonathan Sexton during the captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium yesterday

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When the quarter-final draw was made, this one jumped off the page. A rematch of last year's final, combined with the sense that Saracens were going to give their last hurrah one hell of a rattle, meant that it would have sold out quickly when tickets went on sale.

And then lockdown arrived and cut the legs out from under the champions before they could hit the floor for their last dance.

With relegation assured for next season, a host of big names headed for the exits. Owen Farrell compounded the departures by getting himself suspended, meaning they turn up at an empty Aviva Stadium with a hugely weakened squad.

They won't be in Europe again until 2022 at the earliest and they'll surely throw the kitchen sink at their hosts, but that kitchen is sitting in the shell of a once-great house.

There's not much else to turn to once the sink is gone.

Until Farrell got suspended, they looked like they'd kept enough of the band together for this to be a real contest.

Sure, top players like Liam Williams, Will Skelton, Ben Earl, Ben Spencer, Titi Lamositele and George Kruis have moved on, but there was enough quality left to be able to target this match and produce the goods.

Without their talismanic out-half, it is hard to see how they can stop Leinster securing a 26th successive win.

McCall has redeployed full-back Alex Goode into the out-half's jersey, with England full-back Elliott Daly coming into the No 15 shirt. He has plenty of talent in his starting XV, but his bench is callow.

They don't have the quality to last 80 minutes against a team as good as Leinster who have learnt lessons from the 20-10 defeat in last year's final in Newcastle.

Their personnel has changed. Caelan Doris and Will Connors have come on to the flank to alter the team's physical profile, while the back three has shifted with Jordan Larmour now at full-back and Hugo Keenan on the wing.

Tadhg Furlong's enforced absence is a major loss and they won't want to lose Andrew Porter too early but otherwise they'll be happy enough with what they've got.

The decision to pick Seán Cronin is a nod towards Leinster's lineout problems and the selection of the athletic Michael Rhodes on the Saracens' blindside is an indication that they will go after the PRO14 champions' primary possession.

Rónan Kelleher will come off the bench with something to prove, while Devin Toner will offer solidity before making way for the precocious Ryan Baird whose combination with James Ryan will be worth watching.

Even without Farrell, they'll look to use their boot to test Larmour's aerial mettle but the full-back has improved his work there in the last few weeks.


Leinster, meanwhile, will look to unleash their own kicking skills as they take their lessons from successive Irish defeats to English opposition.

In last year's final, they ran into a red brick wall over and over again. This time, if they're losing collisions, they'll go to the boot and in Luke McGrath, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose they've a range of viable options to pull the Sarries back-field out of position.

If they can secure clean ball, Leinster will do damage.

Saracens, led by the wondrous Maro Itoje and the Vunipola wrecking balls, will look to disrupt and niggle and get in the home side's faces to try and drag them into a war.

They'll look to unsettle Sexton and Leinster can't rely on their captain to do all of the playmaking.

Connors will be deployed on Billy Vunipola, while they'll all have a role in neutralising Jackson Wray at the breakdown.

If they can take out the starting threats, there's not much to come in on the bench. It's Sarries' last dance, but they're on their last legs and if Leinster get it right they'll waltz into the semi-final.

Verdict: Leinster