Tuesday 21 May 2019

Leinster helpless to halt the juggernaut

Leinster 10 Saracens 20

Billy Vunipola touches down to score Saracens’ crucial second
try in yesterday’s Champions Cup final. Photo: David Rogers
Billy Vunipola touches down to score Saracens’ crucial second try in yesterday’s Champions Cup final. Photo: David Rogers
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

You have to go back to the days before Leinster were taken seriously - or indeed took themselves seriously - to remember a preamble to a big game where so many followers in blue shared what you might call 'a bad feeling'. This told you more about Saracens than it did about the side who put had put them to the sword with the minimum of fuss at the quarter-final stages of last season's competition.

Very few teams get to inhabit the space Saracens are in right now. You wouldn't know how long it will last but it has taken a while for them to get there, which explains how they have so many things absolutely right. When they were losing, as they did to Toulon in the final five years ago, they were learning all sorts that would make them winners. Now they have won three of the last four Heineken Champions Cups, just as Leinster were doing from 2009 to 2012.

The best feeling there is in sport is being involved with a side with top quality throughout its ranks, where everyone is crystal clear on what they have to do and how they are going to do it. And that's Saracens. They are at the peak of their powers.

So you had to feel for Leinster in the endgame when they were chasing a game they knew had gone, but etiquette demands you have to get your skates on anyway. Sarries, far from their own line, were lining up the blue shirts and emptying them. In those circumstances it's a battle to retain some dignity, but to their credit Leinster managed that.

To have lost by only 10 points to a side in this mood was an achievement in itself. Saracens have a steel about them, and a deep well of resources to get them out of trouble. And they had some dodgy patches here, trailing 10-0 after 33 minutes. They had been forced into changing both props, and had Maro Itoje in the bin. Yet they sailed through the storm.

When they needed someone to step up and make a big play George Kruis did just that with a massive and perfectly timed hit on Johnny Sexton. Leinster scrambled to try and retain the ball but their captain was done for holding on. So Owen Farrell subtracted three points from the deficit with a perfect strike.

Champions Saracens celebrate with the trophy after the Champions Cup Final. Photo: Getty
Champions Saracens celebrate with the trophy after the Champions Cup Final. Photo: Getty

Still, Leinster could have got to the break with a seven-point lead, but as play developed and the clock went into the red Luke McGrath opted to box kick down the line instead of getting the ball off the field. That will haunt him, for when Rob Kearney then was done on the ground Sarries knew they were back in business.

Leinster withstood the first few assaults but then they were undone with a beautifully worked try. From a ruck close to the line Andy Goode stepped back from a Ben Spencer pass and it threw Leinster completely. Farrell knew that all he had to do was tip it on in any fashion to Sean Maitland, and he did it perfectly for the Kiwi to score in the corner. Farrell added the extras and Sarries raced towards the changing room. Leinster didn't look quite so happy.

The defending champions would not score again. Sexton would not get a chance to call for the tee. Their scrum would deteriorate steadily. They would have to change players for inferior replacements. And they must have felt it in their bones that it was all going south.

So from having gone 3-0 up through a Sexton penalty, and then 10-0 when he converted Tadhg Furlong's try from close range, which saw Itoje binned for three offsides in the same sequence of play, Leinster would lose Scott Fardy to the bin in the second half, during which period Sarries would tack on those 10 decisive points. That blitz started with Farrell's conversion of the penalty against the Leinster flanker, and concluded with his conversion of an unstoppable try from Billy Vunipola. With a five-metre scrum against seven men it was a gimme - even so he took it expertly. And that was the game.

Saracens' English full-back Alex Goode (C) kicks the ball between Leinster's New Zealand wing James Lowe (L) and Leinster's Irish centre Garry Ringrose (R) . Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Saracens' English full-back Alex Goode (C) kicks the ball between Leinster's New Zealand wing James Lowe (L) and Leinster's Irish centre Garry Ringrose (R) . Photo: AFP/Getty Images

If your fears for this game were that the sheer velocity of the collisions would actually be a turn-off then, thankfully, they were not realised. Yes, it was ferocious, but also it was top quality, compelling rugby and the virtual full house of 51,930 got full bang for their buck. One of the stark contrasts they witnessed was Leinster's struggle to generate momentum. In their battle to retain the ball against a hugely aggressive defence the blue shirts were then slowed out of the traps on attack. It's a hard trend to change.

They managed to put some colour in that picture in the third quarter by being more direct off the base of the ruck, and mixing up their game there, but even when that gave them some traction they were likely to get picked off somewhere else. Or else to blow hard won opportunities: Garry Ringrose ignoring an overlap of four early in the second half was costly. Saracens on the other hand had a heap of front foot ball, and the momentum they generated from that made Leinster work their backsides off just to stay in the game.

A week doesn't seem like near enough time to recover for the arrival of Munster to the RDS on Saturday. James Ryan for example will be slow to drag himself from the pit this morning. His 22 carries topped those charts from both sides but while he was looking for inches Billy Vunipola was making metres off his 16 carries.

Elsewhere Cian Healy had a terrific game, Jack Conan was not far behind him, and James Lowe was very good. Naturally enough the man of the match went to the winners. Brad Barritt typifies what this Saracens team are about: accurate, aggressive and utterly relentless. They deserve their place as one of the greats in Heineken history.

Scorers - Leinster: Furlong try, Sexton pen, con; Saracens: Maitland, B Vunipola tries, Farrell 2 pens, 2 cons

Leinster: R Kearney; J Larmour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy (J McGrath 62), S Cronin (J Tracy 51), T Furlong (M Bent 70); D Toner (M Deegan 74), J Ryan; S Fardy, S O'Brien (R Ruddock 63), J Conan.

Saracens: A Goode; S Maitland, A Lozowski, B Barritt, L Williams; O Farrell, B Spencer (R Wigglesworth 56); M Vunipola (R Barrington 30), J George (J Gray ), T Lamositele (V Koch 30); W Skelton, G Kruis; M Itoje, J Wray, B Vunipola (S Burger 74).

Referee: J Garces (France)

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