Leinster bare teeth and show they can go all the way
Leinster 30 Saracens 19
The season that keeps on giving may yet produce an all-Irish final in Bilbao, but what Leinster guaranteed yesterday was that Saracens’ two-year spell as champions is over and they will be back on home soil for the semi-final against Scarlets in three weeks.
The competition favourites justified that tag against the holders, who threw everything at the men in blue in an enthralling quarter-final, but found resistance at every turn. On this form, they can live up to that billing and go all the way.
Two years after the knockout stages were dominated by the English and the French, the Guinness PRO14 supplies three of the four semi-finalists, with Racing 92 the only team left standing from the old order.
For two years Sarries were the best team on the block, but they couldn’t match the energy of a young, hungry Leinster side fuelled with Grand Slam belief. A superb third-quarter surge secured the spoils for Leo Cullen’s men, who are back at the same stage they reached last year, but look in far better shape to go at least one better.
Central to their ambitions is the form of their new twin-totems James Ryan and Dan Leavy, who continued their Six Nations form into the blue jersey. They were both superb, with the flanker edging the race for the Man of the Match award thanks to his tireless display.
Leinster will be wary of their Welsh opponents, who beat them in the PRO12 semi-final at the RDS last season before hammering Munster in the final at the Aviva Stadium.
They have Italian opponents in the two weekends between now and then, meaning they can manage their squad in order to be at their optimum for the arrival of Wayne Pivac’s high-flying West-Walians.
It will be a different test to a Saracens side who looked to squeeze Leinster by holding possession throughout the first-half, forcing the home side into a big number of tackles.
However, it was Leinster whose cutting edge earned them an early lead that they just about took to half-time, striking for a superb Garry Ringrose try after just four minutes, ticking the scoreboard over through Johnny Sexton’s boot and defending stoutly to keep it to 13-12 at the interval.
It was the third quarter that proved the difference.
Buoyed by a superb Ryan lineout steal on the stroke of half-time, they tore into their opponents after the break and tries from Leavy and James Lowe secured the win.
The champions kept fighting to the bitter end, but their own inaccuracy and some excellent defending from the home team saw them through as deserving winners.
Having topped a fiendishly difficult pool and ousted the champions they have achieved a lot, but in reality they are back as the same stage they were this time last year.
A year ago they lost to Clermont in Lyon and Scarlets in Dublin to finish a promising season in disappointment.
This time they are determined to learn from those losses.
“The Scarlets are a team which will not be fazed by coming to The Aviva,” Cullen said. “The last time they played here in that PRO12 final against Munster, they looked pretty impressive.
“They’ve caused us problems, even over the last few weeks when we played them during the Six Nations. They are a very well coached team.
“The group is very motivated. We were well and truly second best against Scarlets last year when they’d 14 for a large chunk of the game, so we know it’s going to be a challenge.
“For us, we need to focus on the things that are important into the lead-up of the game. Scarlets, we played them twice during the Six Nations and they were very close games. We know both teams were missing a lot of players, but they’re a team which can cause you a hell of a lot of trouble so we’ve full respect for them.”
Cullen wasn’t happy with some of the attention dished out to Sexton during a taut first-half and felt the out-half’s loss of discipline towards the end of the 40 minutes was down to frustration.
Even still, Sexton put any doubts about his kicking to bed with a series of important strikes to keep his side’s noses in front as the defence stood up to whatever Sarries threw at it.
They upped the gears at the start of the game and got their reward when Ringrose popped up on Isa Nacewa’s shoulder after James Lowe made a stunning break up the left.
But it was after half-time when they drove their advantage home, with Leavy – heavily involved without the ball before the break – leading the way with it in the third quarter.
His one-two with Ryan on the fringes of a ruck broke a tight game wide open as they exploited Juan Figallo’s loose defence on the edge of a ruck to race through a tighthead-prop sized hole to score.
“I thought Dan was outstanding, very strong in the carry, he was in the thick of everything, a number of guys were as well, but Dan was very good,” Cullen said.
James Lowe bullied his way over for a third to all but settle it before Sarries managed to pull a try back through Blair Cowan at the back of a maul and Devin Toner spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin as the champions tried to play their way back in.
With five minutes to go against 14 men there was a narrow chance, but Leinster shut it down.
The champions were out and the favourites marched on.
Leinster – R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, I Nacewa ( ) (R O’Loughlin 79), J Lowe; J Sexton (J Carbery 69), L McGrath (N McCarthy 65); C Healy (J McGrath 54), S Cronin (J Tracy 60), T Furlong (A Porter 65); D Toner, J Ryan; S Fardy (R Ruddock 65), D Leavy, J Murphy (M Deegan 79).
Saracens – A Goode; L Williams (C Wyles 63), M Bosch (A Lozowski 60), B Barritt, S Maitland; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (B Spencer 61); M Vunipola ( R Barrington ), J George (S Brits 52), J Figallo (T Lamositele 65); M Itoje, G Kruis (D Day 77); N Isiekwe, S Burger (B Cowan 63), J Wray.
Ref – J Garces (France)