There is more than a whiff of good versus evil surrounding Saturday’s long-awaited Champions Cup quarter-final collision between Leinster and Saracens. It’s 71 weeks since the duo faced off in the 2019 final in Newcastle. The English club were winners that day, their victory widely acknowledged as deserved for the bruising, clinical manner in which they turned a ten-point deficit into a win by ten.
Since though, though, the world has changed. Not only has the coronavirus run riot through the sport’s sandcastle-like finances, with officials in Ireland on Friday the latest to paint a doomsday scenario, but the appreciation of Saracens’ trophy-collecting habits has also been reduced to rubble.
Whereas once Saracens were admired as the standard others should aspire to, the grubby salary cap scandal, which will see them relegated to the Championship for 2020/21 and unable to compete in the Champions Cup for the first time since 2009/10, has damaged their reputation in a devastating fashion as they head to Leinster.
Eight months after their relegation punishment was meted out, there are some who still feel they weren’t hammered severely enough. Take John Kingston, the former long-serving Harlequins coach who was at the helm when Richmond were dropped like a stone down the English pyramid system when they went into administration 21 years ago.
He told RugbyPass that English officials should have gone further and stripped Saracens of the trophies they won in the Premiership seasons there were found to be guilty of breaking the salary cap.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 17, 2020
“I struggle to see the Saracens penalty is actually in line with previous stuff that has gone on where clubs have gone into administration because of maladministration of finances. Take Richmond – the consequences of that was (dropping down) nine divisions. You look at Saracens, where cheating has happened on a day to day, week to week basis, and it’s just one division. I’m struggling with that.
“I’m probably in a minority, but I also struggle with the fact the medals have not been returned. For me, it’s very simple: if you’re caught cheating, which is what it was, and you have won something then you’re disqualified and therefore you hand back your medals. It happened to Lance Armstrong. Go to Melbourne Storm and look at rugby league.
“I was asked the other week would you really take a medal off Brad Barritt, what has he done wrong? I said I would because it wasn’t legal what was going on. I’m afraid if you were part of something where you win a title or a cup and you have broken the rules I don’t think history can allow you to continue to have done that.
“Take Bloodgate, for example. I lived and worked my way through that (at Harlequins) and the reality was rules were broken. It was wrong and if Quins had gone on and won the trophy that should have been taken away from them even though it would have been for something far less than the systematic day in, day out Saracens cheating. You can’t keep a trophy if you’re proven to have broken the rules.”
It’s a feeling of injustice that has drifted across the Irish Sea. If Saracens hadn’t broken the Premiership salary cap, would they have had such a strong squad at their disposal to help them win three Champions Cup titles in four seasons, largely at the expense of Leinster?
It’s another appetising reason why Leinster will be gunning to put Saracens to the sword at the Aviva Stadium. If Saracens’ 2018/19 Premiership tile is now tarnished due to salary cap breaches, so too surely is their 2018/19 European final win over the Irish province?
To be fair to Leinster, there has been no Kingston-like outburst over what Saracens have gotten away with, but privately it must annoy them that they are only chasing a second European title in three seasons rather than entering Saturday’s encounter as back-to-back 2018 and 2019 champions chasing a hat-trick of titles.
Adding fuel to the fire is how it would be a killer if Leinster, unbeaten in the 71 weeks since that 2019 final in Newcastle, were to have their 25-game winning streak snapped by an old foe weakened by the loss of the suspended Owen Farrell.
Will the English side end their undefeated run so far? ? pic.twitter.com/Q2GDgokj2t
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) September 18, 2020
An Irish loss isn’t expected to happen, though. Whereas Saracens are finally paying a price for all their shady off-field dealings and are coming to Dublin with an XV that doesn’t possess the same level of suffocating clout their St James’ Park winners did, Leinster have moved their game on in the meantime.
They won their latest PRO14 title last weekend in a canter and the greater depth in their squad is illustrated by how Josh van der Flier, man of the match in that decider, is held in reserve this weekend, Will Connors joining Caelan Doris and Jack Conan in a back row they believe will the measure of Billy Vunipola and co.
It was Vunipola’s ball-carrying that extricated Saracens from their sticky situation 16 months ago and Leinster will be wise to the danger of allowing him to have a dominant say on proceedings here.
What has further steeled the Leinster mindset is how their PRO14 final performance wasn’t perfect, their misfiring lineout, for instance, resulting in the recall to Sean Cronin from the shadows for a rare start in recent times.
It’s illustrative of how the Irish have staved off any threat of complacency in their long unbeaten run. Selection rotation has served them nicely, but they now really need to endorse that excellence by giving Saracens the boot from Europe and exorcise the ghost of the 2019 decider, something which Leo Cullen alluded to in this week’s build-up.
“They [Saracens] have had plenty of change since then but they are still the champions, they are still the team we’re trying to beat because they are the ones with the European trophy in their cabinet at the moment and that’s what we’re all trying to go after at the moment. Yeah, it’s a game we’ve all been looking forward to for a long time.”
Haven’t we all? It should initially be a treat of a power struggle but it’s one that can ultimately go Leinster’s way in a comfortable fashion similar to how they dethroned Saracens at this same stage of the tournament in 2018.
"Do they play rugby in Barbados? I might play there"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 18, 2020
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