Tuesday 21 May 2019

Power deficit laid bare as Sarries flex their muscle

Billy Vunipola of Saracens is tackled by Leinster's Michael Bent. Photo: Getty
Billy Vunipola of Saracens is tackled by Leinster's Michael Bent. Photo: Getty

Richard Bath

Leinster have many qualities: up-front physicality, dancing feet in midfield, a wonderful kicking game, pace to burn out wide, a blue-and-white army in the stands. Yet what they lacked yesterday was the raw power that Saracens could bring to bear.

It was the deficit in raw muscle which eventually did for them, and nowhere was it more brutally and clearly illustrated than with 15 minutes to go when Billy Vunipola came off the back of a five-metre scrum on Leinster's line. The Englishmen had already started turning impossible inches into hard yards, but when Vunipola crashed through four blue-shirted defenders before slamming the ball down on the line, the power shortfall was laid bare for all to see.

For all Leinster's discipline and intensity in defence and willingness to go through endless phases in attack, as the match wore on they were worn down by Sarries' defensive aggression and energy-sapping work at the breakdown. Leinster struggled at the scrum, but for a good portion of the match they matched the English side, until the last quarter when Sarries could afford to commit half as many forwards to each breakdown as their opponents, using the spare men to punch holes in Leinster's fringe defence.

The opportunities for Leinster to get in behind Saracens' aggressive defence were rare to non-existent in the first half. Even half-chances were difficult to come by, although Johnny Sexton did seize on indecision after an early high kick to break into Sarries' half. An even better chance came shortly afterwards when Luke McGrath broke from his own 22 and kicked down the line, only for Jordan Larmour to knock on as he attempted to pick up just outside Saracens' 22.

But far more often than they made ground, Leinster hit a brick wall. Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose and Sexton all found themselves thumped and dumped as Leinster probed for non-existent gaps.

Such was the power of Saracens' tackling and their speed off the line that it took until the last ten minutes of the first half for Leinster's backs to break the shackles. Yet Leinster held their shape, kept their composure and never tried to force it. They were rewarded for that patience when Kearney finally skipped two tackles and was hauled down under the posts. As the English side's forwards piled on, Maro Itoje was yellow-carded and from the resulting scrum Jack Conan went close before Tadhg Furlong forced his way over.

But if Leinster's willingness to put in the hard yards in attack was phenomenal, it was as nothing compared to their fortitude in defence. Three times in the first half they withstood a Sarries siege of their own line before turning over their opponents just when it seemed they must score. Yet it felt like they were holding the dam.

For all the efforts of veterans like Scott Fardy, Sean O'Brien and Devin Toner, it became increasingly clear that they were struggling to contain Saracens' power surges. One came at the fag end of the first half when a lineout in the Leinster 22 unleashed a forward tsunami that ended when they ball was pinged wide for Sean Maitland to amble over untouched.

The next came midway through the second half when Saracens muscled their way towards the line, referee Jerome Garces denying what looked like a grounding on the base of the post. But it was a bittersweet moment as Fardy was yellow-carded.

By now Leinster were being suffocated, with replacement scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth keeping it tight and directing the forward traffic. The veteran saw the mismatch of power and ruthlessly profited from it. In the process, Leinster lost not just this match but their European crown.

Telegraph.co.uk

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