Monday 26 August 2019

Fascinating clash of styles in store as standout teams in Europe go head-to-head in Newcastle

Tadhg Furlong will be up against Mako Vunipola when Leinster take on Saracens in the Champions Cup final. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong will be up against Mako Vunipola when Leinster take on Saracens in the Champions Cup final. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Paul Rees

Cup competitions rarely deliver a final that involves the two strongest teams. Luck of the draw is a factor along with knockout competitions requiring teams to peak only on certain days, released from the treadmill of the league.

The European Champions Cup is a hybrid and the two teams who have stood out by a considerable distance, Saracens and Leinster, will meet in next Saturday's final at St James's Park. It will be a Test match in all but name.

"It is probably the final everyone wanted," says Richard Wigglesworth, the Saracens and England scrumhalf, who, a month shy of his 36th birthday, is likely to be the oldest back involved. "Two top teams will be going at it, the reason you play the game."

Leinster selected 14 players who had played for Ireland in their starting line-up last month for the semi-final against Toulouse. Rhys Ruddock pulled out before the match to reduce the total to 13, the number of full internationals Saracens started with against the tournament's hardy perennials, Munster, in the last four.

The two teams have 16 Lions between them and have dominated the Champions Cup since the last World Cup in 2015. Saracens won it in 2016 and 2017, unbeaten in the tournament in those two years, and Leinster succeeded them last season after winning the quarter-final between the sides in Dublin.

Leinster's success rate in the last three years is 86 per cent, slightly better than their opponents' 83 per cent. Saracens are the English Champions and Leinster hold the Pro14 title. Both teams will have home advantage in their respective play-offs on the trail of a double only one can claim.

Finals are often tense, edgy affairs with risk minimised, but there will be a contrast in styles. Leinster look to keep possession, probing for openings while Saracens, like Ireland, prefer to put the ball in the air rather than take it through long passages of play. The accuracy of Wigglesworth's scrumhalf rival at Saracens, Ben Spencer, undid Munster early on last month, his kicks seeming to stop when they reached their highest point before descending as a legion of chasers encircled the recipient and forced a mistake.

"It is going to be a fascinating battle," says Wigglesworth. "You have so much respect for Leinster, remembering how they did us in the quarter-final last year. They are well-coached and well-led by Johnny Sexton, but it is the little things with them, how quickly they get off the ground and how hard they work.

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"They do not have any 'dead men' and have so few weaknesses. Both teams have very good set-pieces and great defences: the differences are not big, just subtle ones people may be able to pick up on the day."

In the one corner will be Sexton, World Rugby's Player of the Year who has endured a stop-start season but invariably rises to the occasion. He dictates while, in the other corner, Owen Farrell delegates more, mixing the blast of Brad Barritt with the evasion of Alex Goode.

It may come down to goal-kicking and how the two sides play the referee, Jérôme Garcès, who was in charge when England defeated Ireland in Dublin at the start of this year's Six Nations.

"It is never a one-on-one battle in these games," says Wigglesworth. "It is about how many arm-wrestles you can win. If they pull off one of those intricate set-piece moves Ireland favour, it could turn the tide for them. A bit of magic from Goodey could do the same for us. There is so much talent on the field that can cause damage and that is why it promises to be an epic occasion."

Were there a Lions tour this year, Leinster and Saracens would, very probably, supply the bulk of the Test side, including the front five where the second-row James Ryan is, at 22, showing the precocity Maro Itoje did at that age. The two players sum up the sides, both products of a system. Toulon may have dominated the Champions Cup in the middle part of the decade, but they bought in talent rather than developed it and were unable to sustain success. This year's finalists grow their own.

"Because we've had so much success everyone forgets what we went through to get here," says Wigglesworth. "We suffered a lot of pain in Europe before winning in the Lyon rain [in 2016]. The feeling that day was relief because we had put it to bed. The best thing now is that there is no sense of panic: that is not bought but comes from experience. We can react to pressure and get the job done.

"When we lost before, it tended to be because we were unable to cope with it but if Leinster win, it will be because they were the better team. Both sides have so much experience and class that it could be the best final ever."

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