Saturday 24 August 2019

Victor Costello: 'There is an arrogance about this Saracens side - and Leinster can exploit it in Newcastle'

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Victor Costello

When the final whistle announced an Ulster victory over Leinster in the Kingspan Stadium last month, there was relief on both sides.

The hosts felt there was a monkey off their back and that future meetings might result in the same outcome, but for Leinster this was a case of getting out of Dodge as soon as possible.

Since the victory over Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final, Leinster have been back to their unstoppable best and if you think about how little the team has played together, you can be sure the best is yet to come.

The management bucked the trend of selection in consistency and momentum and played their cards very well since the end of the Six Nations. As a result, the players were refreshed, both mentally and physically.

The result was a dominant performance, which was even more gratifying as it was the third time these sides met this year with Leinster evidently able to save their best until last. With the end goal in sight, the players can smell blood and are fully capable of finishing teams who they put on the ropes.

Overall, Leinster have not been as dominant as they were last season, but they have had a tougher road to the final than Saracens, which could be key as the English side have not been truly tested yet and will fear the champions.

There have been comments about Munster only being able to contain Saracens for 50 minutes, but if you look at the opposite side of the coin, what will trouble them is their inability to put Munster away until late in the second half.

This is an area where Leinster will need to strike, despite not being renowned for their first 20 minutes. That said, if they can hit the ground running they will stun the Saracens stampede.

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Saracens will be very foolish to compare the two Irish provinces and if they do, it will be rugby’s greatest ‘rope-a-dope’ move as Leinster’s ability to play multi-phase rugby will run the Saracens pack in circles and deny them a stranglehold on the game.

Saracens’ brand of rugby is predictable and repetitive, but effective. Just like the national side, Sarries have no plan B.

If the Saracens pack can get on top, the back line becomes potent. Liam Williams has reinvented himself, as has Alex Goode, with Owen Farrell directing operations. But if the pack doesn’t gain ground, the backs are redundant.

This has rarely happened this season, but it will against Leinster.

Leo Cullen will know what is coming and when the Saracens defence loses its shape as Leinster’s ball retention wears them down, Cullen’s men will show that they are far from predictable.

Saracens have spoken about last season’s loss to Leinster as a watershed moment for them and how they have changed since.

All this talk is great for supporters and sponsors, but Saracens don’t seem to appreciate that Leinster are not the same team either.

Since last season’s outstanding success, Leinster have had some navel gazing moments both in national and provincial shirts. This heartbreak and inconsistency has reminded them not to take anything for granted at any level of professional sport.

While Ireland has lost form, Leinster have been more buoyant throughout and the national players have respected that winning mentality upon returning to their club. The end result at the right time of the season is a bunch of players who enjoy playing together and trust each other.

There is an arrogance about this Saracens side. This allows them to play offside all day and it also leads them to think it was their lack of performance that lost last year’s game, rather than Leinster’s dominance.

This emotional misconception and their need for payback is not the ideal preparation for a Champions Cup final.

From Saracens’ supporters’ point of view, they will have to worry about many more than just a handful of names.

Leinster, with the best front-row in the world, have any amount of back-rows as well as Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Garry Ringrose, Rob Kearney and a bench full of impact.

Much will be discussed about the Farrell-Sexton sub-plot, but once again Farrell does the basics very well while the current Johnny Sexton is back to his world player of the year best.

Saracens will attempt to beat up the Leinster pack but this will be the best pack that they have come up against all year. Furthermore, Leinster are quite capable of play-making even if the pack fails to secure quality ball, while Saracens require silver service to play off.

Leinster know that they need this victory for themselves and as a platform for the World Cup.

When Leinster win tomorrow, Irish rugby will be back on track, but lessons will have to be learned in the management of players at national level.

Once again the travelling support will show what’s wrong with English rugby compared to what’s right with Irish rugby.

The belief is back in the players and the belief is back in the jersey.

That, coupled with the desire and the ability to win, will crown Leinster as champions for the fifth time and place them deservedly in the record books.

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