Tuesday 21 May 2019

Will Greenwood: 'Lethal Leinster v Suffocating Sarries - it's just too close to call'

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Richard Wigglesworth. Photo: Getty Images
Richard Wigglesworth. Photo: Getty Images

Will Greenwood

The final has, without question, delivered the two best teams in the competition. Saracens and Leinster both have pedigree, world-class players, European knowledge, superstars, next-generation heroes and money to spend. The match will be a Test in everything but name.

Their starting XVs, give or take one or two positions, are made up of international players who are still either playing or could get picked. That is a crazy level of quality for a club match.

There are so many similarities to today's finalists that the match is almost impossible to call. Both teams are full of players who win the big moments - they have proven it over the past few years in the big games, home and abroad, in club colours or for their countries. Players able to understand when it is time for a special defensive effort or the phase to throw more men down a channel when attacking.

They are military-style teams, but the simplicity of their excellence means we are dealing with players who understand the minutiae. They are totally respectful of the next phase, set-piece, attacking opportunity and are prepared to train themselves to almost act without thinking when the moment comes.

But there is a subtle difference: Saracens and Leinster are not full of muscle memory, they are full of muscle mastery. An autopilot ability to make extraordinarily hard collective efforts look almost easy.

The temptation with a preview piece is to look at the individuals who have performed so memorably for them in the knockout stages, to pick out performers and performances which have swayed the big games. But that would be to miss the point. It is possible to have 50 caps and two Lions tours and then as a player in these teams find yourself anonymous in the rigour of your duty.

It is their mundane brilliance that makes these players the best. It is the simple things done well time and time again, when the body says 'no mas', that marks them out as special. Players that will fight themselves to a standstill.

This is not an overnight miracle. Any collective, accumulated belief takes years and years to develop. Lessons learnt from failure along the bumpy road, tweaks each and every year following defeat or success - never revolution, always little steps, little add-ons. It is about detail, focus on that detail and a total focus on Europe.

This is a competition that both clubs target because they are so strong domestically. They are able to rest players in domestic leagues to pinpoint the big double-week games in Europe. And by guaranteeing European rugby each year, the calibre of player they can attract goes through the roof.

The situation will become increasingly like football, a viciously positive cycle that is underpinned by money. I suspect we will be seeing Leinster and Saracens in the knockout stages of Europe for many years to come.

All that said, despite their similarities, there are some USPs and this is what will decide the game.

Leinster are about innovation, detail, intricate handling and running lines. Defences are seen as pieces of meat to be manipulated, massaged, and then, at point of least resistance, lacerated.

The Johnny Sexton run-around has long been associated with this team. The reality is everyone does it, but only certain teams master it to a level that you know the team will run it, and you still cannot stop it. That is control of the defence and a real understanding of what is required from everyone in the process. They have total accuracy under fatigue and defensive pressure, plus a confidence to run the play and tweak it according to what their opponent does, rather than run it regardless of what they are doing.

That is the key to playing good rugby: you need to have systems, flexibility and a relentless consistency with a willingness to change.

Leinster were also the innovators of the three-phase play because they understood that at a set-piece defences were well organised. So they attacked in areas that tie in the best defensive players from the first phase and then strike one or two phases later with what looks like a disorganised attack but in reality has everyone tap-dancing in time like Anton du Beke and Darcey Bussell.

Defenders often thought, and still do, that under fatigue and once the first phase has happened, you will only see attacking teams run simple hard lines or wide passes. Not Leinster. Switch off for a second and a prop will be doing an inside flick to a blindside wing who has been hiding in a second-row's pocket.

Saracens. Defence - rah, rah, rah. You almost feel you need pom poms with Sarries, who for years have had an American football-style focus on defence.

Saracens suffocate you; they swamp you, they remove the space. Then they keep removing the space. It is awesome to watch the collective effort to keep moving forward: the mental self-belief in the system is extraordinary. When all sense is screaming drift, Saracens still pile forward square on and look to dominate the tackle.

This, coupled with their aerial control, makes them very, very difficult to breach. There are a combination of factors at work here. First, pinpoint accuracy in their kicking game, with Ben Spencer or Richard Wigglesworth both able to knock an ice cream out of a young child's hand from 50 metres.

The hang time and accuracy of the kicks mean that Sarries never really let go of the ball. Once in the air, the kick-chase slots into shape, the black wall forms quickly, men from different parts of the field who were seemingly not connected suddenly have telepathic movement and all dog-legs and gaps vanish in an instant. Then comes the competition for the ball in the air. David Strettle, Liam Williams and Sean Maitland are all outstanding high-ball operators but they do not necessarily rely on cleanly catching the ball. They are happy with winning the tap. Why? Because they play for it.

The second line of chasers are fully aware of their role; pick up the loose ball, fight for the scraps, bend the legs, stay low, allow yourself to move like a goalkeeper. Saracens are fantastic at it;d what seems like an abdication of possession is a perfectly choreographed routine to move up the field, regain possession and then attack a side with a disorganised defence.

But Saracens and Leinster are not one-trick ponies. Leinster have a defensive unit that kept a talent-filled Toulouse team to 12 points in their semi-final. Their defensive energy was immense, no weak defensive links, no 'one-shouldered' players. Everyone comfortable staying connected, reacting to the ball, reacting to their team-mates and backing their decisions to step in together or slide as one.

Saracens, meanwhile, were outstanding in their attacking threat in the quarters and semis, when they put 56 points on Glasgow and 32 at Munster. They showed a real ability to win rucks with one- or two-man efforts when playing with the ball, keeping men on their feet, who are all comfortable with the ball in their hands from 1 to 15.

This is a battle of two outstanding teams, with little to separate them. They are experts at what they do and ultimately the match will be decided by the one or two small moments of excellence. It really is too tight to call.

© Daily Telegraph, London


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