Friday 24 May 2019

David Kelly: 'Saracens edged epic game of controlled fury and intoxicating intensity'

Dejected Leinster players look on as the trophy awaits to be presented to Saracens following the Heineken Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and Saracens at St James' Park in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dejected Leinster players look on as the trophy awaits to be presented to Saracens following the Heineken Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and Saracens at St James' Park in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Saracens are masters of all they survey; some call them the most hated team in Europe but they are champions of the continent nonetheless.

And with what many decree the most despised player of our unique times, too Billy Vunipola, effectively deciding the day with his late try but Leinster will, in their private moments, rue their first ever final defeat.

For, while Saracens utterly controlled their destiny in the final quarter, as they have done all season, the reigning champions had almost as firm a grip on proceedings in the first-half.

They couldn’t win the match then, of course, but they could have ensured they were not in a position to be chasing it.

Leading 10-0 after a half-hour, an ill-judged pass and then the fateful decision by Luke McGrath to play on as the clock went red allowed their opponents to gobble up the lead by the tea break.

In an astonishing game of (mostly) controlled fury, any lead so brutally achieved and yet so casually discarded perhaps deserved the ultimate punishment.

And that is effectively what Saracens did in the second-half, meting out a destructive, physical lesson in pain, unleashing a stronger bench as they regained the title they lost to Leinster at the quarter-final stage last year.

That was an injury which stung them; this was payback time. Leinster hit a brick wall and, like Ireland against England before them, physical power trumped all.

That it took such a ferocious effort owes much to Leinster’s remarkable resilience, with Cian Healy and Robbie Henshaw leading the stunning defensive effort.

In the end, they were suffocated, unable to play their own game. But great champions always come back; after all, Saracens did.

Two box-kicks from the respective halves set the early tone; each side intent on exposing the first mistake which might establish a front-foot advantage.

Leinster would earn one worth three points when Saracens strayed offside just two minutes into the contest; in a day requiring adherence to the smallest of margins, the inches of illegality provided early succour.

As this week in Europe has demonstrated, though; a 3-0 lead is rarely enough.

The buffer was boosted by an impressive counter-rucking surge deep in Saracens’ territory; encouraging early signs.

The restart had allowed them to play, the first wrap-around of the game expanding the game a tad but, to the initial concern of the thousands of Leinster fans, Saracens showed they could play a bit too.

James Lowe’s defence was caught napping, too easily, and then Leinster’s midfield was split by Alex Lozowski before Garry Ringrose, inexplicably, dropped a ball on his own 10-metre line.

Brief chaos, but Leinster can often find comfort there.

Luke McGrath’s tackle on Goode was excellent, Jordan Larmour’s blistering dash down the wing, dribbling like Chris Waddle of old in this famous ground, before the ball evaded him and the chance Leinster, as Ringrose stumbled as space loomed.

That space, though, was at a premium and the ball went high more often than it went wide, each side seeking to turn the other over between the 22s, each side living on the edge of an offside line that, these days, is so routinely ignored by all.

An early defensive scrum seemed solid for Leinster but they were done on their opponents’ ball and, from their 10-metre line, the red wave made a worryingly easy advance towards the Gallowgate End, power and precision driving them forward.

Too much power, though, Brad Barritt’s shoulder off the ball not a dark art at all but one that, right in front of the Leinster posts, coughed up what seemed to be an imminent scoring opportunity.

The intensity was intoxicating; the sides pummelling each other into submission; Saracens refusing to man rucks yet still slowing the ball down as Leinster’s phased play was met with a forbidding red-clad defensive wall.

Leinster needed width but couldn’t get there quickly enough; Jordan Larmour danced and weaved, but sideways; they needed someone to break the dam.

Rob Kearney, a Leinster veteran of so many occasions like this, provided the opening, cutting in superbly from the right-wing and trusting himself, not Larmour, as he ghosted past Sean Maitland and sprinted away from Ben Spencer.

Now they had the platform they desired as Kearney’s run was recycled short of the line; their first visit to the Saracens’ 22.

After half an hour, the game was now really on and Saracens were the first to crumble; both their props departed the fray, Maro Itoje was sin-binned and Tadhg Furlong, having led the side out on his 100th appearance, led the way by dotting down.

His leader, Jonathan Sexton, had set the tone, opting for a scrum to pin the dizzied opponents on the ropes; Furlong’s try floored them.

Ten-nil was a chasm in such a game like this but, remarkably, it was Leinster who would be unsteady on their feet as Saracens thundered back into the contest.

Mark McCall had been withering when asked by the Irish Independent yesterday whether his side could play catch-up rugby; ultimately, it just mirrored the rugby they always play.

Leinster aided them, though; a poor pass engulfing Sexton in red, Farrell nailing a three-pointer, just as Itoje returned to level up the manpower.

Improbably, the would soon level the scoreboard, too. Luke McGrath failed to call time on the half and a turnover allowed Farrell to punt his side deep into territory.

They would make their dominance in the collisions pay, Leinster’s narrowing defence creating the space out wide for Maitland to atone for his earlier defensive lapse.

Could Leinster atone for theirs?

They would need to do so with control, and not the reckless intent of Ringrose who almost gifted an intercept opportunity with a no-look pass.

When they laid siege to the line, Liam Williams made an extraordinary salvo but Leinster had coughed up an opportunity to go wide; the wolf-pack defence were ravenous now.

Momentum, slowly, was ebbing their way. A crooked throw from replacement James Tracy.

But then the other; a Cian Healy turnover moments after knocking over his man in a tackle; George Kruis, on the double, doubled over.

Every moment counting. Every spilled ball perhaps leading to momentous possibilities. Each pass a game of high-stakes mental poker given the astonishing physical context.

Saracens, subtly, were negotiating the territory better, their bone-crushing intensity bringing the game to a different level, even beyond that of Test level.

Like Leinster, earlier in the half, they eschewed the wide option from Jackson Wray but, as in the first-half, Leinster had to sacrifice their number six to save a try.

Then, Leinster went for a scrum and scored seven; now Farrell was content with three and, for the first time, they were in their most comfortable environs, leading as the final quarter beckoned.

Now it was their turn to navigate the numerical and scoreboard deficiency; Sexton is playing flat as Leinster seek open ground but Billy Vunipola swallows it up, an intercept to release the pressure valve.

They are in control now, and refusing to relent; mauling to thieve even more power from dwindling Leinster legs, wearied from the battle.

Then a scrum to twist the knife. Vunipola, the player everyone loves to hate because he is a player who loves to hate, barrels over from a scrum.

Fardy returns but in his absence Sarries have clinched the game; there will be no European comeback now.

The best team in Europe this season are, deservedly European champions; Leinster’s concession is little disgrace; few, if any other teams in the world could have lived with the Englishmen on this evidence. They remain the best equipped to challenge them.

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