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Champions Cup Final Preview: Saracens v Leinster

Sport…bloody hell. After a barely believable week of Champions League football, the sporting spotlight shifts to the oval ball this Saturday, as Saracens and Leinster prepare to thrash it out for European club rugby’s most coveted prize in Newcastle.

Here are five talking points to ensure you sound more Alan Quinlan than Alan Shearer in the pub this weekend.

Cup Rugby Titans

There is no questioning that these two clubs have been European rugby’s dominant forces this past decade.

A Champions Cup final showdown is becoming familiar territory – it will be a fourth appearance for both over the last ten years - and they made relatively light work of their semi-final opponents last time out. Leinster brushed aside the challenge of the mercurial Toulouse, whilst Saracens were comfortable in overcoming Munster at a half-empty Ricoh. The test for both sides on Saturday will be of sterner stuff.

For Leinster, victory in Newcastle would not only mean a successful defence of their coveted European crown but also a record breaking fifth star added to their club badge. Across the pond, Saries are looking to chalk up a third title in a just four years.

This is an exact re-run of last year’s quarter final, when the dominant Dubliners conjured a stellar second half display to put Saracens away 30-19. They will not have forgotten that chastening afternoon in the Irish spring sunshine, and the Saracens scimitars will be sharpened and out for revenge this weekend.  

McCall’s charges head into Saturday in confident mood on the back of some boisterous domestic form having steamrolled Wasps and Exeter. Leinster took a different approach, the value of it remains to be seen. They flunked their final two Pro14 matches, albeit fielding weakened sides, as they put faith in fresh legs over momentum.

Leo Cullen is banking on form traditionally going out the window when it comes to cup finals at the highest level. Either way, there will be no excuses from the players or coaches for not delivering the goods on Saturday

Two Peas In A Pod

The similarities between these two sides are stark - they are almost a perfect mirror image of one another.

Both have built success on lung-busting work rates in attack and defence, a rapid line speed that smothers the opposition’s attacking ability and an almost robotically accurate kicking game. Neither team tries to play too much rugby in their own half, preferring to pen their opponents back, force errors and dominate territory.

They say familiarity breeds contempt however and there is certainly no love lost between these sides, following Leinster’s demolition job of Sarries last year and the spicy Ireland-England dust ups of recent years.

Many of the players who took the field on both those occasions in Dublin will once again find themselves in battle with each other on Saturday, more so than anyone the fly halves.

Good chums off the pitch after two Lions tours in tandem, Sexton and Farrell share an unfiltered will to win on it – expect them tear chunks off each other once again.

As ever with these crunch games, the side that handles the pressure of the occasion and can better the work rate and line-speed of the other will almost certainly come out on top.

Battle Of The Collisions

In modern rugby, the collisions getting more ferocious by the day and are more and more often dictating the outcome of big games. The battle for ascendancy at the gain line is going to be monumental between two sides who pride themselves on the bruising quality of their play.

 Sarries pair Mako and Billy Vunipola will meet their match in Leinster’s homegrown hulks Tadgh Furlong and Sean O’Brien; out in the backs, Robbie Henshaw will relish trying to demolish the Wolfpack’s tackling machine, Brad ‘the Brick’ Barritt.

With both sides enjoying a ruck success rate of 90% so far this tournament, getting heavyweight runners over the gain line further and faster will have a big impact on the outcome of this game.

What’s certain is that this game will played at international test match intensity with the England – Ireland subplot providing some lovely added spice to what will be an enormously physical encounter. Bring ice, it’s going to be a bruiser.

Three Key Head To Heads

Mako Vunipola v Tadgh Furlong– the two best props in the world right now have revolutionised the role in the modern game with their chiffon handling and relentless appetite for hard graft.

Teammates for the Lions two summers ago they’ll know each other’s game inside out by know. Vunipola had the last laugh in Dublin earlier this year in the white shirt of England giving Furlong extra fuel to settle the score this weekend – he is a very hard man to put down when he gets motoring. They will likely cancel each other out at scrum time, so it will be compelling to see which of them can exert more influence in open play.

Maro Itoje v James Ryan – both sides will be relying on a rock-solid set-piece this weekend and it’s largely up to these two young, athletic second rows to make sure that’s just what they get. Statistically speaking, Saries have the edge here winning a whopping 95% of their own feed at both scrum and line-out.

Both Adonises are just as effective around the park as they are at scrum or line-out time, hitting rucks with relish all day and generally being a nuisance at the breakdown. Whilst Itoje is a well-established international and Ryan is still finding his feet in the green of Ireland; don’t let that fool you – he’s quickly developed into a serious enforcer. He currently sits second in the carries tally and third for tackles made for this tournament and will be a constant thorn in Sarries’ side on Saturday.

Jonny Sexton v Owen Farrell – two of Europe’s most decorated fly-halves and vastly experienced internationals, the Farrell-Sexton debate looks to be slowly turning in the Englishman’s favour. He steered England to victory against Ireland in February in a game where Sexton was conspicuous largely by his absence. The Sarries man outkicked, out-passed and outthought his Leinster opposite number that day, but Sexton has been looking back to somewhere near his best in recent matches and will be out to prove that there’s life in the old dog yet. 

The Venue

This year’s showpiece takes place at St James’ Park, one of the nation’s most iconic footballing cathedrals and a venue described by Newcastle Falcons’ head honcho Dean Richards as ‘second-to-none’. While local football fans have had a decent time this term, the city’s Falcons fanatics had their relegation fate cruelly sealed last weekend. Despite this disappointment, I’m sure any relegation blues will be shelved over the coming days as the locals put on one hell of a rugby spread for the visiting fans.  

If the atmosphere at a sparse Ricoh Arena was flat for Sarries semi-final against Munster, particularly in contrast to a bouncing Aviva for the corresponding all-Ireland clash, then you can be sure St James’ to be rocking by kick-off as both sets make the pilgrimage north.

Prediction

This is as tough a game to call as I can remember, but I have to go with my gut instinct and that’s a narrow Leinster win. 19-16 to the men in Blue, with those fresh legs making the difference in the final quarter.

Will Chilcott
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Cover image - PA

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