PREVIEW: Champions Cup Final
LEINSTER V SARACENS: Holders Leinster believe they will need a special display to beat Saracens and win an historic fifth European title in a clash of the continent’s heavyweights on Saturday in Newcastle.
The Irish province earned a shot at a record haul of Champions Cup crowns with a convincing 30-12 semifinal victory over fellow four-time winners Toulouse and have their hearts set on earning a fifth star next to the club badge on their blue jerseys.
“We want five stars,” said Leinster and Ireland No.8 Jack Conan, speaking to The Left Wing rugby podcast.
“It would put us in a special place in European rugby history if we go on to be the first team to do it.”
Leinster, champions in 2009, 2011 and 2012, overpowered English giants Saracens 30-19 at the quarterfinal stage last year, en route to Bilbao where they won a try-less final 15-12 against Racing 92.
The Dublin-based side know they will have to be at their best at St James’ Park, the home of Newcastle United football club, to stop London outfit Saracens from avenging that loss and becoming three-time winners of Europe’s premier club Rugby Union title.
“We are well aware we are going to have to raise our game,” said Leinster and Ireland lock James Ryan.
“I think they are better than last year.”
— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) May 10, 2019
Saracens are seeking a third European title in four years, having triumphed in 2016 and 2017, and coach Mark McCall was adamant his English champions would be a more formidable force that they were in last season’s Dublin quarterfinal.
“We’ll be in a much better state physically and mentally,” said McCall, a former Ireland centre.
“We were in a different place then. England had just had a very poor Six Nations, Ireland had just won the Grand Slam and we were missing some key players,” he added.
McCall, whose side overpowered Munster 32-16 in this season’s semifinals, looks set to have all of his star names available this time, England prop Mako Vunipola having been passed fit following an ankle problem.
Much is likely to depend on the dominance that Vunipola and his brother, No.8 Billy, can help Saracens gain up front – and on whether flyhalf Owen Farrell can prove a more influential orchestrator than his opposite number, Johnny Sexton.
World Player of the Year Sexton was short of his best after being rushed back from injury for Ireland in this year’s Six Nations but was close to his most influential form with a man-of-the display against Toulouse in the match semifinal.
Sexton is the all-time leading points scorer in Champions Cup finals, with 63 from Leinster’s four previous wins.
Farrell is the top points scorer in this season’s competition, with 79. The England flyhalf is also the third top points scorer in history in all stages of the tournament, with 767 – behind Ronan O’Gara (1 365) and Stephen Jones (869).
It promises to be a tight affair between two closely-matched teams who boast power up front and an ability to play a controlled, kicking game behind their forwards.
Both sides have masters of the aerial battle in their back division in Leinster’s veteran Ireland fullback Rob Kearney and Saracens’ Wales wing Liam Williams, who will be looking to complete a Grand Slam and Champions Cup double.
The strong-running Williams is a potential match winner, as is Leinster’s Kiwi wing James Lowe, who has bagged 20 tries in 27 appearances for the Irish province.
Prediction: This will be the fourth meeting between Leinster and Saracens in the Champions Cup, the three previous clashes were all won by the Irish province including a 30-19 victory in their only knockout encounter, in the quarterfinal last season. Leinster will be aiming to win the Champions Cup for a record fifth time (currently level with Toulouse), while Saracens could lift the trophy for the third time, more than any other Premiership club. Should Saracens win the Champions Cup it would be the ninth time an English club has lifted the trophy, more than any other nation. However a Leinster win would represent the eighth win by an Irish province – drawing them level with England and France. Saracens have won all eight of Heineken Champions Cup matches this season, only on two previous occasions has a side won every match on their way to lifting the trophy – Saracens themselves did it in 2015/16 before Leinster also achieved the feat last season. Leinster have won 16 of their 17 tournament matches since the beginning of the 2017/18 season, their only defeat in that run coming by a single point against Toulouse in this season’s pool stage.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (captain), 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Seán O’Brien, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Rhys Ruddock, 20 Max Deegan, 21 Hugh O’Sullivan, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Rory O’Loughlin.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Alex Lozowski, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Spencer, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 George Kruis, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Titi Lamositele, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Nick Tompkins, 23 David Strettle.
Date: Saturday, May 11
Venue: St James’ Park, Newcastle
Kick-off: 17.00 (16.00 GMT)
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Pascal Gaüzère (France)
TMO: Philippe Bonhoure (France)
AFP, @Champions Cup & @rugby365com
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) May 9, 2019