Leinster v Saracens – Champions Cup Final preview

Champions Cup final

One year on and here we are again! Another shot at glory and the opportunity to add another star to the jersey, and of course another trophy to the cabinet at Leinster HQ.

This time around, Leinster face such tough opposition that neither the rugby pundits nor the bookies can call it! It’s understandable given the recent success that both teams have enjoyed over the last few years. There’s no concrete favourite going into this game, there’s just a solid agreement from both teams and supporters that this final will be the toughest battle since the competition’s inception. It’s going to be a game that comes down to very fine margins where the smallest slip up could be the deciding factor for who lifts the silverware at St. James’ Park. In my previous write up about Leinster’s semi final against Toulouse, I mentioned that it was a clash of titans. It was a match which pitted the two most successful sides against each other for the opportunity to go on to potentially make history. This weekend, it’s pretty much the same scenario again in a lot of ways. Over the last decade, Saracens and Leinster have dominated the Heineken Cup. The two teams have won the 6 out of the last 10 seasons (Saracens 2, Leinster 4), their dominance and experience at the final stage of this competition is immense. This is the way cup finals should be, and what a massive battle we have in store. Lets just hope that the stars (all 5 of them) align for Leinster 😉

Both sides have incredible strength and huge squad depth, and have the ability to send out teams packed with internationals. This weekend, we’ll see as close to Test rugby in the Champions Cup as our finalists have selected teams brimming with Irish and English international regulars. Let’s take a look at the team Cullen & Co have selected:

15. Rob Kearney (208)
14. Jordan Larmour (36)
13. Garry Ringrose (62)
12. Robbie Henshaw (34)
11. James Lowe (27)
10. Johnny Sexton (157) CAPTAIN
9. Luke McGrath (110)
1. Cian Healy (205)
2. Seán Cronin (170)
3. Tadhg Furlong (99)
4. Devin Toner (229)
5. James Ryan (28)
6. Scott Fardy (41)
7. Seán O’Brien (125)
8. Jack Conan (86)

16. James Tracy (91)
17. Jack McGrath (144)
18. Michael Bent (123)
19. Rhys Ruddock (158)
20. Max Deegan (43)
21. Hugh O’Sullivan (14)
22. Ross Byrne (69)
23. Rory O’Loughlin (60)

17 members of the team that played in last season’s Champions Cup final will line out again for Leinster tomorrow. 14 of the starting 15 are all seasoned internationals, the one other player, James Lowe, is already at the international standard and probably one of the best wingers on the planet right now. If that’s not enough, a further 6 Irish internationals await on the bench to add further momentum to the boys in blue. Max Deegan and Hugh O’Sullivan are the only other two who are yet to be capped at international level but are very much on their way to breaking through! Essentially, this is an incredibly powerful team capable of beating any opponent in the competition when fully switched on. It’s Cullen’s Clinical Contingent that will look to use all of their collective experience to overcome a similarly star studded Saracens outfit.

Where the game will be won
Leinster’s big guns have not had a lot of game time since the 6 Nations, most of which have only togged out in blue for the Champions Cup quarter and semi final. Of course, despite the lack of game time and a slight bit of rustiness against Ulster in our quarter final, Leinster still managed to secure victory. This weekend, we face a much more aggressive opponent who punish mistakes and rustiness more severely that any other team in the competition. As a result, let’s all hope that Cullen’s tactic to limiting our players’ game time over the last three weeks will not reduce their cohesion come kick off. Leinster will need to make sure any cobwebs are blown away and ensure each player is switched on from minute one until the final whistle, such is the attacking threat that Saracens pose. Anything less than 100% from the boys in blue could quickly see Saracens becoming the new superpower in European rugby.

The other thing that Leinster will need to make sure they’re prepared for is how Saracens push the boundaries of legality and interpretation from referees. As we saw during Saracens’ semi final against Munster, they did a great job of controlling the aerial contest. They performed what is being called ‘escorting’ where the attacking team send the ball high, then send a runner to chase it, but also send some defending players that block and slow the opponent’s defenders to run to the ball. This was highly effective for Saracens and allowed them to secure their own high ball on several occasions in dangerous areas of the pitch for Munster. This brought about massive momentum and applied immense pressure on Munster at key moments in the game. They also adopted an approach of tapping back high ball rather than trying to secure the ball in the air. This made life difficult for Munster as they tried to catch and secure high ball in the air. If Leinster don’t have a plan to counteract these sneaky tactics, you can have no doubt that the same tactics will be deployed tomorrow. Rob Kearney will be key in this area, his ability in the air and experience under high ball will be tested but no better man than Kearney to try and nullify this threat.

Although I fully acknowledge that Saracens are by far Leinster’s most formidable final opponent to date, I don’t think they have been truly tested this season. I feel that they’ve had some tricky games and had to fight hard to get the results they needed, but they never had to dig deep and vary their game plan to secure a win either in the Pool stages or in the play offs. Look at their pool for example, they faced Lyon, Glasgow and Cardiff, none of which performed very well against Saracens, which allowed them to win all 6 games with minimum effort overall. Saracens went on to face Glasgow again in the quarter final, and this time they put 50+ points on them in a non-contest encounter. No offence to Glasgow but we all know that they are a lot more capable and tougher opposition to allow this to happen. Saracens continued their journey with a 16 point win over a Munster side that couldn’t compete with the pressure Saracens put on them throughout the second half. They weren’t exposed to high pressure and at no stage did they need to dig deep and pull out a monumental shift to snatch victory.

Leinster on the other hand has had to face Toulouse 3 times, all of which were bruising encounters, and also had to dig very deep when Ulster almost caused an upset at the Aviva stadium in the quarter final. The quarter and semi finals in particular where season defining for Leinster as they showed how to grind out wins even when they weren’t at their best, and then how to go up a gear and produce some champagne rugby when required. Leinster’s ability to adapt and perform to a very high level when it truly matters is what makes them champions and why they are a formidable threat to any team in Europe. It’s the cohesion and belief in their systems that sets them apart from any other team and I believe it’s their huge drive and hunger that will get them over the line again this weekend. There’s a lot of things that must go right for the boys in blue tomorrow but I believe that they will produce another incredible performance and raise the trophy to the faithful supporters once more.

Leinster 26 – Saracens 16

Match Day result: Leinster 10 – Saracens 20

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