Saturday 25 May 2019

Neil Francis on Leinster's Champions Cup final defeat: 'No answer to murderous efficiency of worthy winners'

Seán Cronin of Leinster is tackled by Billy Vunipola and Brad Barritt of Saracens
Seán Cronin of Leinster is tackled by Billy Vunipola and Brad Barritt of Saracens
Saracens’ Owen Farrell is tackled by Leinster’s Devin Toner during the Champions Cup final yesterday. Photo: David Davies.
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

This final was a brutal and sustained examination, with both sides in a mood of cold certainty. I have no quibble with the winners yesterday - they were murderously efficient on the gain-line and played with untroubled rhythm when they got the ball.

Yesterday's Champions Cup final was a process of separating the exceptional from all others; as I write this my recall is not as sharp as it should be because the game had this hypnotic sense of drawing you in and leaving you minus the detail.

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This one was for the adrenaline junkies and when the adrenaline flows your mind and your body go for the fight or flight response - except in this instance there was nowhere to go. I cannot quite remember a match played with such feral intensity.

It was quite amazing that both teams were able to sustain it all the way to the final whistle. As John Francome once said about one of his horses that could go the distance, "she stayed longer than the mother-in-law". That said, what Leinster engaged in over the last 10 or 15 minutes, when the match was pretty much over, was an essay in purposeless effort. The only consolation was that they were alive to the point of not conceding any further scores to Saracens.

These are the matches that the players say they enjoy playing in, because they are tested to the limit. Leinster can cruise their way around some pretty calm waters in the Pro14, but it is like keeping a ship in the harbour, and it is not what it was built for. Leinster went out to bigger seas to test themselves.

It would be a mistake to think that Leinster could not have won this match. They had a 10-0 lead heading into the last few minutes of the first half and had been marginally the better side. The concession of Sean Maitland's try was a grievous blow, and to have gone in for the oranges with no advantage will have weighed heavily on Leinster minds.

Inside the Leinster dressing room there was no sense of ownership on this game. They did start the second half well but you could feel the tentacles of the Saracens animal slowly but ominously imposing themselves on proceedings and when Owen Farrell knocked over a penalty in the 51st minute, a lot of people in the ground would have felt that might be the only score of the second half, so tight was everything.

In the end it was Saracens' defensive effort that won out. Their tackling was technically brilliant but it was the ferocity which really told. Yes, they were always a foot or two offside, but Leinster knew that coming into this game. It is something that they will have to address in the off-season.

If you are going to beat sides who play a very direct blitz defence - and can sustain it for 80 minutes - the only way is through the quality of your passing. Yesterday some of the tackles that went in, particularly in midfield, would have distracted some of Leinster's passers but there was too much ball that did not go directly to the intended receiver; for a season or two now, Leinster's passing has lacked the crispness and authority of previous campaigns.

It is hard to gauge from yesterday's match just who to blame or credit for at least half a dozen Saracen intercepts in the middle of the park. Were Saracens so far offside or was the Leinster passing half a second slow? Certainly some of Luke McGrath's passing came shoulder high and that upset some of the Leinster mojo.

This was a game played in beautiful weather for rugby and if Leinster cannot pass the ball in these conditions, even against a side as coruscating and as relentlessly aggressive as Saracens, well then they should just kick a little bit more ball.

On that note Leinster probably shaded the kick-chase; it was in other areas that they may have lost it.

When Maro Itoje was sin-binned in the 29th minute - and we might look at a later date at his behaviour on his binning - Jerome Garces was certain that Saracens were offside in three continuous passages of play, which is some going, and Itoje was the guilty party for two of them.

Leinster had an opportunity to take advantage of the card and an enforced Saracens front-row reshuffle as Mako Vunipola was never fit enough to start yesterday's game, and Titi Lamositele looked like he was in real trouble when he was called ashore. It is a sign of Saracens' power that they were confident enough to resist Leinster at scrum time under their own posts with only seven men knowing that they would get picked off if they included a back on the flank. They conceded eventually after Jack Conan had picked and gone right.

The flipside of that situation came in the 51st minute in exactly the same set of circumstances when Scott Fardy got a yellow card and Leinster looked decidedly uncomfortable and got pushed backwards over the line but did not concede their try line. Saracens went for the posts from the resulting penalty, which was not down to a lack of ambition but more derived from pragmatism.

There were very few set-pieces, which showed you what a high-quality game it was, and the ball was in play for lung-burning periods of time, but Saracens got the ascendancy at scrum time in the second half and also brought their maul in to play once they got ahead on the scoreboard and practically squeezed Leinster to death.

Once Saracens get ahead it is very difficult to wrest the initiative back from them. It needed a moment or two of brilliance from Leinster to get a toehold back into this game and Saracens were too cold-blooded a side to give them a sniff.

And so the drive for five must wait another season. The better and more cohesive and more direct side took the plaudits yesterday.

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