RUGBY REVIEW: LEINSTER V SARACENS
Key moments cost Leinster dearly
By Daire Walsh
THERE was an unfamiliar feeling for Leinster at St James’ Park on Saturday as they fell to defeat in a European final for the very first time.
Despite finding themselves 10 points in front approaching half-time, the Blues were subsequently pegged back by English Premiership giants Saracens in the Newcastle-set Champions Cup decider. While it was widely acknowledged that Mark McCall’s men were the better side over the course of 80 minutes, a couple of key moments swung the tie in their favour.
Instead of signalling the end of the opening period with a boot to touch, Leinster scrum-half Luke McGrath opted for a box-kick into the Saracens half. This backfired on the defending champions, with Sarries playmaker Owen Farrell eventually releasing Sean Maitland for a try on the left-flank.
The Blues had an opportunity to make amends shortly after the restart, only for Garry Ringrose to turn down a cast-iron overlap inside the ’22’. The centre was superbly dispossessed by Liam Williams and with the eastern province struggling to regain a foothold, Saracens ultimately ran out 20-10 winners.
A three-time winner of the competition during his stellar playing career, Naas’ Jamie Heaslip was Channel 4’s co-commentator for the final in Newcastle. Speaking in the direct aftermath of the game, the former back-row believes Leinster will need to absorb the lesson from their defeat and use it as fuel for another bid at European glory next season.
“They’ll be disappointed. They’ll take their learnings from this. When you look at the game, they did leave a lot of opportunities. In the first half, a five on three stands out in my mind. When you think about it, 10 minutes before half-time they’re 10 points ahead,” Heaslip said.
“Sarries scored 20 unanswered points to win this game and that’s a sign of a class side. Leinster will have to look at that and take the learnings from it. They’ll have to lick their wounds a little bit. Just like Sarries did last year [quarter-final loss to Leinster], they’ll learn from it. Get better and chasing that fifth star again.”
Shaking off initial doubts about his participation in the contest, a fully fit Sean Cronin was favoured ahead of Kill’s James Tracy in the Leinster front-row. Suncroft’s Fergus McFadden missed out through suspension while Kill’s Adam Byrne was injured.
It looked set to be a memorable day for tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong, who marked his 100th appearance for Leinster with a superb try on 32 minutes. This followed the sin-binning of Maro Itoje and given front-row pair Mako Vunipola and Titi Lamositele were also forced out of the action, Sarries appeared to be on the ropes.
McCall’s outfit held firm in the face of adversity, though, and Farrell supplemented his long-distance penalty by superbly converting Maitland’s try on the stroke of the break. With the sides still deadlocked (10-10) 11 minutes into the second period, Tracy assumed the hooker mantle from Cronin. His miscued line-out immediately placed Leinster on the back-foot, but it was Scott Fardy’s yellow card on 58 minutes that really ramped up the pressure on the holders. In his absence, a Farrell penalty preceded Billy Vunipola’s outstanding finish off a five-metre scrum.
Whilst Leinster battled with all their might to address a 10-point deficit, they were second best to a superior team in the end. This was an historic win for McCall, who became the first Irish man to guide a club to three top-tier European titles.
Leo Cullen missed out on a second European crown as a coach (and a fifth in total), but felt his side paid the price for allowing Saracens to ‘suffocate’ them in the final stretches of the play.
“We’re gutted obviously. I thought we were in the game first half. The end of the first half, where Sarries had a man in the bin and we just probably don’t manage the game during that period. We had chances there, we had chances at the start of the second half. We just didn’t quite execute them,” the Leinster head coach explained.
“Once Sarries get their noses in front, as we all know they’re a very hard team to chase the game against. I thought they suffocated us in probably the last 30 minutes. There’s lots of learnings for us out there today. How we manage this type of team, that try to suffocate you. We’ll try to come back, get stronger.”