This wasn’t how this was supposed to pan out. Twenty-four weeks after they were originally slated to host Saracens last April in Dublin, Leinster were expected to exact sweet revenge for their anguished defeat to the Londoners in the 2019 Champions Cup final.
It didn’t happen, a howitzer of a Saracens quarter-final performance – first-half acceleration followed by second-half stubbornness – resulting in the defending champions striding forward into the semi-final on the back of a thoroughly deserved 25-17 win. They will now face Racing in Paris next Saturday.
In the 71 weeks since their defeat in Newcastle, the Irish province had beaten all before them, winning 25 on the bounce, collecting successive PRO14 titles and plotting their course back into the knockout stages of Europe.
And yet the one nagging doubt, that the intensity of their league doesn’t hold a candle to the energy-sapping robustness of these European occasions, was clinically exposed, their fortunes going full circle as they lost again to Saracens 497 days after they had relinquished a ten-point lead at St James’ Park decider.
A bulling Saracens visit was always going to be their ultimate interrogation. The Londoners are essentially the rugby version of Millwall, the football club that glories in the ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ mantra and with a season in the Championship on the horizon following their financial doping, this was Saracens’ opportunity to puff out the chest, polish the chip on their shoulder and dish out a reminder that they are still very much a force to be reckoned with.
They hold off the @leinsterrugby comeback to earn a tremendous win in Dublin ?
Sum their performance up in 3 words ?? pic.twitter.com/OAUWlEu4fn
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) September 19, 2020
The indomitable Maro Itoje hinted as much in midweek, tweeting on Wednesday that he was already ready for the weekend and then elaborating on this hunch the next day at a media conference, admitting he had the feeling that something special was in the air.
He was right. Executing a suffocating game plan fostered by their Irish coach Mark McCall, what transpired for quite a considerable chunk was in keeping with the way England have bullied Ireland at Test level in recent times. Brute force, streetwise activity at the breakdown and combativeness at the set-piece, the sort that reduced the Leinster front row to penalty-riddled rubble.
It was all very easy on the eye and while Leinster did rally coming down the finishing straight, their first-half malaise left them with far too much leeway to catch up against an opposition who demonstrated exactly why they have conquered Europe three times in the past four seasons and are now on course for another triumph.
Lack of heft did for Leinster when the teams last collided and it was similar here, an issue exacerbated by how slow starts have been a feature of their efforts in recent weeks in the league, going behind to Munster and Ulster early doors. That trend was repeated, Saracens 9-3 ahead on eleven minutes after some early penalty tit-for-tat that set in the train the outcome that was to follow.
With the suspended Owen Farrell usually on the tee, Alex Goode doesn’t get much kudos for being an accomplished kicker, but he clipped over three attempts from different lengths in the opening salvo, with the eleventh-minute award emblematic of the early Saracens energy, Robbie Henshaw snared carrying out from near his posts.
Johnny Sexton landed one kick in riposte but with Saracens going hard at the breakdown amid an atmosphere where the loudest noise was usually TV pundit Lawrence Dallaglio shouting into his mic, Leinster lacked the necessary fluency to make home advantage count at an empty stadium.
One cameo summed up the inefficiency. Having gone through multiple phases to seemingly leave themselves poised near the try line, they came unstuck through an Itoje intercept and this section of play ended with James Lowe then bundled into touch after possession had been kicked clear.
Alex Goode and Duncan Taylor combine for a sensational @Saracens try! ?
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) September 19, 2020
It typified how costly errors were in terms of a momentum shift. Then came a further power surge. A Jordan Larmour knock-on and a Sexton restart that didn’t travel ten metres brought scrums and the penalties that materialised were both dispatched with aplomb by Elliot Daly.
At 15-3, this wasn’t yet a crisis for Leinster but instead of Sexton pointing at the posts and clawing three points back, they opted for the corner where a series of mauls, penalties and a collective warning given to Brad Barritt culminated in Saracens sacking another maul, piercing the pressure and then conjuring the score that had definitely started Irish alarm bells ringing.
A throw to the tail of the lineout was the initial prompt and then off a centre-field ruck, Duncan Taylor blasted through the cover to allow Goode swagger over and convert his own score. Nineteen points was now the margin and such was the Saracens chutzpah, Daly even attempted a penalty from his own ten-metre line after Leinster again infringed at the scrum.
The situation now facing Leinster mirrored half-time in the 2011 decider when they trailed Northampton by 16. They bounced off the canvas that day in Wales, but Lazarus was unavailable to bail them out here nine years later in Dublin.
Jordan Larmour for @leinsterrugby! ?
His first try for almost two years is a beauty!
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) September 19, 2020
They may have won a penalty at the first engagement after the interval, but Itoje extinguished the resulting attack at the breakdown and fears grew about just where a spark of inspiration might come from. In the end, Sexton provided it, his penalty-winning run from one half of the field to the other the territory gain necessary for Porter to eventually go in under the sticks on 49 minutes.
The conversion made it a twelve-point margin and the stage was set for a closing half-hour to savour. A Jackson Wray ruck infringement was Leinster’s next invite into the red zone but a turnover was forced after a Ryan Baird carry.
A late hit on Sexton by the steely Michael Rhodes next invited Leinster to further reduce the gap, Larmour gliding in for the converted score on 62 that tantalisingly left it 22-17. The comeback to beat on all comebacks was suddenly potentially on but with Sexton exiting injured, Leinster fell back into their sloppy ways and after Goode and Daly were wide off the tee, the result was rubber-stamped in the final minutes, Goode aptly having the final say on a day when the absent Farrell wasn’t at all missed.
LEINSTER: 15. Jordan Larmour; 14. Hugo Keenan, 13. Garry Ringrose, 12. Robbie Henshaw (Rory O’Loughlin, 62), 11. James Lowe; 10. Johnny Sexton (Ross Byrne, 66), 9. Luke McGrath (Jamison Gibson-Park (62)l; 1. Cian Healy (Ed Byrne, 57), 2. Sean Cronin (Ronan Kelleher, 43), 3. Andrew Porter (Michael Bent, 73), 4. Devin Toner (Ryan Baird, 43), 5. James Ryan, 6. Caelan Doris, 7. Will Connors (Josh van der Flier, 53), 8. Jack Conan.
Scorers – Tries: Porter (49), Larmour (62). Cons: Sexton (50, 64) Pen: Sexton (6)
SARACENS: 15. Elliot Daly; 14. Alex Lewington, 13. Duncan Taylor, 12. Brad Barritt (Dom Morris, 80), 11. Sean Maitland; 10. Alex Goode (Manu Vunipola, 80), 9. Richard Wigglesworth (Aled Davies, 69); 1. Mako Vunipola (Richard Barrington, 69, 2. Jamie George, 3. Vincent Koch (Alec Clarey, 80), 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Tim Swinson (Callum Hunter-Hill, 64), 6. Mike Rhodes (Calum Clark, 73), 7. Jackson Wray (Tom Woolstencroft, 80), 8. Billy Vunipola.
Scorers – Try: Goode (37), Con: Goode (39). Pens: Goode (3, 9, 11, 80), Daly (25, 28)
It was as early as Wednesday when Maro Itoje tweeted he was ready for this weekend, a feeling he steely reinforced with an audience of a dozen journalists on Thursday over Zoom w/@heagneyl ???https://t.co/WQXWfphLn9
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2020
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