Two test-match quality teams squared off in Newcastle for European glory in an intense physical battle that delivered a worthy champion, crowning Saracens as the most successful English side in European history by the end of the day.
Although defending champions Leinster built a 10-0 lead and seemed in control after half an hour into the match, there were warning signs flashing red that this scoreboard dominance was not reflecting the true nature of the encounter – Leinster were going backward nearly every time they had the ball.
Saracens’ defence was truly ferocious in every way, eating up space and bashing Blue at every opportunity. The only time Leinster confidently made the gainline was from their first two lineout starter plays, but when they fell back into a regular structure after three or four phases they were hammered backward relentlessly.
On the flip side, any time Saracens played with ball-in-hand they rumbled downfield and only their own execution stopped their roll.
With their first real fist of possession from a lineout starter play around halfway in the fifth minute, Brad Barritt ran hard and direct on the first phase, Billy Vunipola was sent at Sexton’s channel on the second and when Liam Williams had the ball on the third he was breaching their 22 after slipping past a falling James Lowe. They showed immediate signs that they would be very difficult to handle.
The monster Saracens pack, aided with Maro Itoje’s switch to the backrow and two healthy Vunipola’s (for at least the first thirty minutes) had similar pillars to England’s pack that bullied Ireland in the Six Nations opener. This final was no different.
Saracens had four visits inside Leinster’s 22 during the first 35 minutes but came away with zero points – each time scuttled by a self-inflicted turnover or brilliant last-ditch resistance from the Irish-side. Although they couldn’t finish, someone frequently trespassing your front lawn is probably going to break into the house eventually.
At the opposite end, Leinster were met with dogged, and at times illegal resistance anytime they were deep in the scoring zone. It was tough going even when they earned their first try against 14-men after Itoje was binned for repeated offences.
With Owen Farrell on his heels directly on his own goal line, Leinster number 8 Jack Conan lined him up breaking off the back of the scrum. With a wind-up, he was belted and stopped in his tracks by Farrell one-on-one. In that situation, most times Conan would bash past a flyhalf and score through contact with his shifty footwork and power. Leinster had to scrap for every inch to score two phases later with a pick and drive.
The tipping point came when the previously successful starter plays failed to yield any go-forward momentum. Leinster’s third lineout around halfway just before halftime played a wide ball to Conan, who was met with precision around his undercarriage by Alex Lozowski, stopping him in his tracks before picking him up and driving him back.
When a ball-playing, undersized centre is not only winning but dominating collisions with loose forwards, it is an ominous sign you are beginning to lose the arm wrestle.
With everyone having to backtrack, Leinster’s attack had all the wind taken out of it. On the second phase, a deep Sexton is hammered one-on-one by George Kruis for another 10-metre loss and is caught holding on at the breakdown. In two phases they lose 25-metres and give Farrell a chance to open Saracens’ account, which he does from 35-metres out.
At that point, Leinster seemingly just lost all their footing in the uphill battle with the Saracens’ defence.
Luke McGrath’s ill-advised box kick on the stroke of halftime moments later would prove to be costly. Instead of kicking it out, kicking it deep or just holding onto the ball to grind out whatever time was left, he hoisted an uncontested kick that made a net gain of 15-metres. Saracens won a penalty from the ensuing ruck, went downfield and scored a try to level the game before halftime.
McGrath may take the blame but it showed a lack of purpose and clarity from the side. There was limited kick-chase, a sign that no one else was really expecting it or up for the tactic mentally.
If no one was expecting it, what was the plan to close out the half that would’ve been talked about 30-seconds earlier when they were watching Farrell line up a penalty kick?
There were only 35-seconds left in the half when Sexton’s restart left the boot. Playing a territorial kicking game with no clock left is pointless. You can’t build pressure because the opposition can simply release that pressure by kicking it out once they have it. The options are either end the half so your opposition can’t score or try and score yourself, which can only be done with ball-in-hand.
When a team is getting beaten up physically and frustration creeps in, thinking forward with clarity can go adrift, with too much thinking about the last play instead of the next. Leinster’s aimless management at the very end of the half was perhaps a sign of that.
A rejuvenated Leinster came out fighting in the second half, throwing the kitchen sink at Saracens. They dominated possession in the first 10-minutes but were turned over twice less than 10-metres out from the tryline, failing to get any reward for their work and early control.
A prolonged period of misfires from both teams resulted in Saracens’ finally arresting the lead in the 58th minute with a penalty goal to Farrell. It was a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Billy Vunipola fittingly iced the game with a barnstorming run off the back of the scrum, scoring through four defenders. That effort contrasted greatly with Conan’s own effort in the first half from a similar striking distance, a symbol of the difference in physicality between the sides.
If you count Vunipola’s two intercepts, he finished with four turnovers in the game. He was also the man who pinned Rob Kearney at the bottom of the ruck on that McGrath box kick, earning the penalty. His first intercept of Sexton ended Leinster’s last raid in their 22, and started the possession that finished with his own try under the posts to effectively seal the match. He was punishing in defence and contributed immensely to Leinster’s go-forward troubles.
Leinster weren’t without a lack of heart or effort, just out-and-out beaten by a stronger team that was more physical. They were simply bashed out of it. Saracens were by no means clinical, but when they finally got things together there was no way they weren’t going to take the match.
Billy Vunipola following Saracens’ European triumph:
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