Sunday 25 August 2019

Neil Francis: 'If Leinster play as well as they can, they will beat Saracens - convincingly'

Cullen’s troops can make it two-in-a-row by preventing opponents imposing their will

Jonathan Sexton of Leinster kicks a conversion during the Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final match between Leinster and Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of Leinster kicks a conversion during the Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final match between Leinster and Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I went to see Madame Zelda the other day to see if she could shine a light on who was going to win the Champions Cup this Saturday.  After two hours of pointless effort with the crystal ball, she said in a scary voice: “It will be a game of fine margins.” 

"Would that be small margins or just fine margins?" I asked. 

"Is there a difference?" she asked. 

"Huge,” I replied. 

"Fine margins," she said. 

"What else?" I asked. 

"It is going to be a game..." 

"A game of inches?" I interrupted.

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"How did you know?" she asked.

"I didn’t," I replied. "I was just hoping the spirit world would come up with a better class of cliché than the living are serving up at the moment."

I think Leinster are going to win on Saturday. One or two suppositions but Leinster, I think, have the better team, better coaching and are better geared to winning a match of this magnitude.

You felt that Leinster were always capable of producing a get-out-of-jail card exactly when they needed it against Ulster. The Red Hand died with their boots on and Ulster’s supporters, although their team finished second best, probably went home happier.

That’s because Leinster had been in a dogfight and would face Toulouse under no illusions. If there was not a significant improvement, Leinster would be leaving the competition at the semi-final stage.

Toulouse were on fire and were unbeaten in all of their competitive matches except for the pool game against Leinster. 

I don’t think Leinster got enough credit for their semi-final win – a superbly intelligent display. If there was a quibble it would be that they should have won by more.

And so to those suppositions. We expect Leinster to select a full-strength side. We expect Leinster to be primed for this occasion. We assume that they do not ship points early on in the game.

We also assume that Leinster keep all of their players on the pitch for the full 80. We assume, too, that there will be incremental improvements. If they do that they will win.

I am on the record on how I feel about Saracens. Quite apart from their financial and governance issues, they are a cynical and quite often illegal side.

They don’t quite so much push the boundaries, more dance all over them. They have the firepower to get away with their cynical mode of play.

Discipline is key for Leinster. Discipline, even when Jerome Garces shrugs his shoulders in the face of illegality. In the eight games in the lead-up to the final, Leinster averaged seven penalty concessions a game. That figure would have Joe Schmidt purring. Out of a total of 56 penalties they only hit double figures twice – 10 against Toulouse and 10 away to Bath.

They managed only to concede three away to Wasps in the final game of the pool. It is quite an achievement to only concede three penalties in 80 minutes of high-intensity rugby.

It is the classic champion’s diet. Deal with pressure without conceding and apply pressure to your opponent until they have no option but to concede.

Saracens totalled 73 penalties in their eight games – 17 more than Leinster. In a game of attrition, it could come down to concession of penalties.

The 73 penalties conceded show that Saracens will concede a penalty at the drop of a hat if it means they protect their line. Saracens have been yellow-carded more than any other Premiership team this season.

They can afford to do this because there are very few teams with the firepower to take advantage of them when they are a man down. Lose a man to Leinster for 10 minutes and that will be a different matter.

The mindset for Saracens when they concede penalties is that they will be able to produce something to get back ahead because of their heavy-duty pack or their highly-skilled and intelligent half-backs. They won’t get the same latitude against Leinster. One area, though, that concerns me with Leinster is how they defend.

Munster will tell you that they were in distress when Saracens came at them in waves. Leinster do have the tendency to employ a soft drift at times and, if you let Saracens get 15-20 metres forward on you on the outside, they will build powerful phases.

I think stopping Saracens early on the gain line is the key. Leinster, too, can be exposed like Ireland were in February by England, if they get caught defending too narrowly. Owen Farrell’s wide passing, especially to Alex Goode, can do some damage here.

Leinster’s bench is a worry. Is everyone up to Champions Cup final standard? It is, as Madame Zelda alluded to, tight. If you take Saracens’ six most important players of Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, Alex Goode, Maro Itoje, Ben Spencer and Liam Williams, they match off with nothing to spare against Johnny Sexton, Jack Conan, Rob Kearney, James Ryan, Luke McGrath and James Lowe.

The difference is at the other end of the scale, where Leinster’s midfield of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will have too much for Brad Barritt and Alex Lozowski, and the Leinster back-row is immeasurably better than Jackson Wray and Michael Rhodes. Vunipola is a class apart here though.

The difference at, say, tighthead is telling. A refreshed Tadhg Furlong will add hugely more than Titi Lamositele. That said, it is a team game and I think Leinster have the edge here as well.

The Leinster team dynamic to prevail against a side that needs to bully to win. Leinster won’t be bullied. Only Garces or Spencer, so, to wreck the party.

If Leinster play as well as they can, they will win – convincingly.

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