Saturday 24 August 2019

Leinster reach for fifth star

Confident Sexton puts faith in battle-hardened team-mates to lift Cullen’s men to immortality

Johnny Sexton only has eyes for the ball during yesterday’s captain’s run at
St James’ Park. Photo: Getty Images
Johnny Sexton only has eyes for the ball during yesterday’s captain’s run at St James’ Park. Photo: Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Leinster can set themselves apart as the most successful team in the history of the Champions Cup by winning their fifth title in Newcastle this evening and captain Johnny Sexton says the champions are relishing the challenge of defending their crown.

Saracens stand in their way at St James' Park and the Irish province are well aware of the formidable challenge they present.

Mark McCall's English champions won the 2016 and 2017 editions of this tournament before their reign came to an end against Leinster in last year's quarter-final and they are determined to learn from that loss.

Leo Cullen yesterday kept faith with the starting XV that beat Toulouse in the last four, with Sean Cronin overcoming his calf injury in time to start, while he brings the experience of Jack McGrath and Rhys Ruddock on to his bench.

Michael Rhodes' back injury forces McCall into a change in his pack, with Australia international Will Skelton coming into the second-row and Maro Itoje switching to the blindside as Sean Maitland returns to the wing after missing his team's win over Munster. David Strettle drops to the bench.

Saracens are marginal favourites to regain the title but, having previously billed the challenge as the toughest of his career, Sexton cut a confident figure at the pre-match press conference yesterday as he challenged his team to produce their best performance on the biggest day.

"We've had two weeks to prepare for this now so we've had a good look at them," he said of Saracens.

"You look at the team-sheet and they've got back a lot of the guys they were missing last year. They're going to make it tough for us but we're looking forward to the challenge.

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"We'll take confidence from coming through a tough pool, we'll take confidence from some of the challenges we've faced along the way this year.

"Ulster really put it up to us and Toulouse were the in-form team and we looked after them really well in the semi-final.

"We'll take confidence from all of that and we'll take confidence from winning a trophy last year.

"But it will really come down to on the day and who plays best. We need to play as best as we can and see where it gets us."

While Leinster are confident, an experienced Saracens team are equally full of belief that they can overcome the champions to win their third title in four years.

"There's certainly good sense in the team we've had good momentum from the last year," skipper Brad Barritt said.

"We've learned a lot from the defeat to Leinster.

"The team are in great condition, we had good performances in the quarter-final and the semi-final but we're aware we need to step it up another level against this Leinster team tomorrow.

"We're more than ready for it.

"In terms of playing in a European Cup you don't really need any extra motivation.

"It's the pinnacle of club rugby and after last year's game we are very eager to be successful. To reach the final this year is very satisfying. There is a huge game to be played.

"We try to keep our formula quite simple so no matter what the occasion; try and keep it similar to any feeling we have in a training week. Whatever feeling we've tried to achieve this week has been spot on. There's been nothing over the top."

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