Tuesday 22 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Saracens the only team that can halt this Blue wave'

If competition's two top teams reach decider we could be treated to the greatest final yet

Centre of excellence: Leinster’s Garry Ringrose tries to break through the tackles of Wasps pair Zurab Zhvania and Ben Morris. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Centre of excellence: Leinster’s Garry Ringrose tries to break through the tackles of Wasps pair Zurab Zhvania and Ben Morris. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Only one team can stop Leinster winning successive Champions Cups, and it's not Munster.

The current champs are locked on a collision course with Saracens. A final between the two on May 11 would be the mother of all European battles.

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Saracens have secured top seeding with frightening ease. It's 2007 since anyone accrued a larger group-stage points total. The English side won the competition in 2016 and 2017 without losing a match.

Their hat-trick bid came undone against Leinster in last year's quarter-final but, bedevilled by injuries and struggling for form, Saracens were a pale shadow of themselves.

This season Mark McCall's team look entirely rejuvenated. They have England's best players in Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola as well as Lions Test stars Liam Williams, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and George Kruis, and all-time great Schalk Burger.

But despite all that Saracens firepower, Leinster still seem worthy favourites.

The victories of the last two weeks indicate that they're closing in on the performance levels which made them utterly irresistible last season.

Last week's demolition of a very good Toulouse side, when shorn of half a dozen regulars, was yesterday followed by a game in which Leinster scored a comprehensive away victory while rarely moving into top gear.

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Wasps lie sixth in the Premiership, only four points off third, and their director of rugby Dai Young spoke of this match as one in which they could make a big statement.

The only statement Leinster let them make was, "we surrender". From the start only one result seemed possible.

Leinster's first-round destruction of Wasps remains their most spectacular performance of the season.

The backs caught the eye that Friday night as they ran in half a dozen sparkling tries.

Yesterday the signature scores were different, coming from a couple of driving mauls which sent the home side into rapid reverse as James Ryan conducted proceedings like a cross between Herbert von Karajan and Jimmy Swaggart.

Both drives ended with Sean Cronin touching down. It shows the power of the Leinster pack that the hooker scored six tries in the group stages, a total surpassed only by Jacob Stockdale.

And it speaks volumes about the side's strength in depth that their best try, 15 minutes from time, was completely created and finished by replacements.

Scott Fardy began it by bringing the ball into a ruck before Cian Healy, another sub, powered through a couple of tackles. Noel Reid was involved before a beautiful offload by Max Deegan found Rory O'Loughlin whose perfectly-timed pass put Reid in.

It was exhibition stuff which showed that while Leinster possess some world-class individuals Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have created a system into which other players fit seamlessly.

Reid gave a superb late cameo yet may move on next season given his lack of opportunities in a team coming down with talented backs.

The gifted O'Loughlin could face similar difficulties down the line. Deegan, good enough to win Player of the Tournament at the 2016 U-20 World Cup, has yet to really break through.

Making Leinster's full-strength first 15 is tougher than getting into most international teams.

Two players who would make that XV returned to action in Coventry. Sean O'Brien has become so unlucky with injuries that these days you watch his performances with trepidation.

Yet the man who broke his arm just three months ago was familiarly bullish. Robbie Henshaw, who also hasn't been the luckiest, negotiated his comeback with ease too.

That Leinster's first score, a Ross Byrne penalty, followed a move began by a neat Henshaw offload to O'Brien was a comforting start to a day with no nasty surprises.

Things weren't so simple in Thomond Park on Saturday and there was even a moment in the final 10 minutes, when an Exeter team leading 7-6 had a line-out five metres from the Munster line, that the unthinkable seemed possible.

Instead the great-hearted Billy Holland made a superb steal and a couple of minutes later Joey Carbery was kicking the match-winning penalty.

Munster's ability to tough it out illustrates their character but the traditional big home finale dominance was conspicuously absent.

Johann van Graan undoubtedly has Munster on the way up but a third successive semi-final exit seems their most likely fate.

Remarkable

No qualification for the knockout stages is more remarkable than that of Ulster. Having only scraped into the competition by winning a play-off, with a new manager in charge and apparently in disarray, they were no-one's idea of contenders.

Yet the extraordinary grit they've shown all season was again evident as they came from 13-0 down to defeat Leicester 14-13, their third victory by four points or less.

Such gutsiness hardly seems to deserve an away quarter-final against Leinster, a match in which Ulster will do well to keep the losing margin to within 20 points.

Anything other than a Saracens, Racing, Leinster and Munster final four would be an enormous surprise.

Yet the interpolation of the Six Nations between group and knockout stages means things may change by the time the club competition resumes.

Yet right now that Leinster-Saracens showdown seems very much on the cards. Never before have the two previous winning teams locked horns in a Champions Cup decider. We may be heading for the greatest final of them all.

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