How Leinster were left with an insurmountable hill to climb against Saracens

Sloppy errors, aerial losses, maul failings, scrum penalties, and a brilliant Sarries try were all involved.

TRAILING 22-3 AT half-time in a European knock-out game is disastrous and though Leinster delivered a decent effort at overcoming it, their deficit at the interval against Saracens yesterday proved insurmountable.

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s side got back to within five points in the second half but they will have real regrets about the part they played in Mark McCall’s superb Saracens storming into that stunning lead at the break.

Leinster’s issues began directly from Alex Goode’s kick-off, as he hung the ball just inside the home team’s 22.

Devin Toner, obviously a key receiver of restarts for Leinster, reacts and moves downfield in a bid to get underneath the ball.


Andrew Porter moves with Toner, ready to lift him, while Will Connors races back to offer a front lift, but the Leinster second row misjudges the flight of the ball, which carries slightly deeper than he’s expecting.

Toner leaves himself reaching back towards the dropping ball as it still appears he’s going to catch it, but it evades him and Jack Conan, clearly distracted by Toner’s effort to gather the ball, knocks on.


With Toner playing the ball in an offside position, it’s arguably a Saracens penalty but referee Pascal Gaüzère awards a scrum and the visitors get a shot at goal soon after anyway as Porter is penalised for not rolling away from the tackle.

As we can see below, Porter is in the wrong kind of position but makes an initial effort to get himself away from the ball. 


Itoje places the ball into Porter to accentuate the situation and Gaüzère signals the penalty offence. Leinster’s frustration will be that this high standard wasn’t quite maintained throughout the entire game, but they only have themselves to blame in this position after completely botching the kick-off.

While Leinster did soon kick an equalising penalty when Porter won a jackal turnover, an aerial loss a phase beforehand didn’t bode well in another crucial element of the game.


In just the fourth minute of the game, Saracens have this win in area where Leinster also had struggles against Munster and Ulster in recent weeks.

Richard Wigglesworth’s box-kicking was superb yesterday, while Alex Lewington chases accurately and aggressively in this instance, shoving the escorting James Lowe out of the way and then fielding the ball skillfully overhead.

But Leinster will be disappointed with their lack of assertiveness in the aerial contests again yesterday, with fullback Jordan Larmour beaten on the occasion above. Leinster lost four aerial contests overall, while even some of their successes were scrappy as Saracens applied major pressure with their box-kicking tactics.

Leinster’s sloppy discipline was another damaging element of their performance, as underlined by their second penalty concession.


It’s a strange decision from captain Johnny Sexton not to release the ball after Billy Vunipola is clearly tackled to the ground.

Sexton makes no effort to release the ball and it’s three very cheap points to concede with Saracens having had so little to do to earn them, simply running Vunipola directly at Leinster from the lineout.

And Leinster soon self-destruct for another Saracens penalty, following a clever grubber kick by centre Duncan Taylor down the left.


Larmour [white below] has just lost the ball forward under a Sexton bomb, meaning he’s still retreating into the backfield here.


Taylor intelligently identifies the space and even though he might have liked to put slightly more power into his kick, it forces Garry Ringrose to turn and track back to gather the ball.

Still, they should have the composure to build towards an exit.

But a phase later, Luke McGrath’s wild pass and Larmour’s decision to hit the isolated Robbie Henshaw do damage.


With Henshaw catching the ball under immediate pressure from Taylor, Larmour goes straight off his feet in a big to rescue the situation and Saracens have an easy three-point chance under the posts. 

It leaves Leinster 9-3 down after just 11 minutes and feeling like they have simply handed those nine points to the English side.

Cullen’s side do finally get a chance to enter the Sarries 22 in the 14th minute but Itoje produces a big play to intercept McGrath’s pass following some strong carrying by James Ryan, Conan, and Lowe.


It initially looks like Itoje could be offside but a closer inspection shows that he simply time his run perfectly. 

The angle below shows that the ball has bobbled out of the ruck and underneath McGrath’s feet, meaning Itoje is entitled to advance from the defensive line.


What Leinster might question was whether Michael Rhodes, who has just tackled Lowe, plays the ball while off his feet in the ruck.

We can see above that Ringrose turns to look at assistant referee Joy Neville, presumably feeling there has been illegal play, but there is no doubting that Itoje reads the situation superbly to go and pick off McGrath’s pass.

It’s a crucial turnover with Leinster so close to striking back after their poor start, but it was the start of a theme for Cullen’s side, who left the Saracens 22 empty-handed on five occasions in this game. Saracens scored points on both of their two visits into Leinster’s.

In a game which had a ball-in-play time of just 28 minutes and 16 seconds, which is very low, much of the first half continued in a stop-start manner with lots of penalties and set-pieces.

A passage just after the quarter mark underlined Saracens’ defensive qualities, as well as Leinster’s strange hesitance to kick the ball. We have seen signs of growth in this area from Leinster in recent weeks but they simply didn’t have an attacking kicking game to speak of in this defeat.

They were playing into the wind in the first half but even at that, it was odd that Leinster didn’t make any attempt to stress or manipulate Saracens’ defence with kicks. Having failed to do this in last season’s Champions Cup final, it was expected to be a feature yesterday but it didn’t materialise.

Instead, Leinster sometimes found themselves playing into the teeth of Saracens’ excellent defence, as below.


It’s obviously a strong tackle from Taylor and Brad Barritt to dislodge the ball but Porter will have been disappointed with his error on a day when Leinster conceded 16 turnovers and Saracens had just seven.

While Saracens have two defenders in the backfield in this instance, Leinster will be disappointed not to have offered any threat with their grubber kicks, cross-fields, or chips in behind over the course of the game. Taylor’s earlier grubber showed Sarries’ smarts in this department.

Another Larmour knock-on in an aerial contest soon after provides the platform for the first of seven Saracens scrum penalties.


The sheer dominance of Saracens tighthead Vincent Koch is crucial here as it paints an early picture in referee Gaüzère’s mind of Leinster being in trouble.

There are a couple of marginal calls at scrum time later in the game, but this destructive start from Saracens certainly plays into them coming out on the right side of those.

And when you have Elliot Daly’ cannon boot off the tee, every penalty within or near the opposition half is a genuine scoring chance – as demonstrated by the England fullback slamming over 53-metre and 48-metre shots from two scrum penalties in four minutes. 

In between, we see another sloppy error from Leinster as Sexton botches his restart.


It’s an execution error from Sexton as Leinster seemingly attempt to go for a short, contestable restart but it’s hard not to see this mistake as belonging in the ‘spooked’ category that Cullen mentioned several times post-match.

From the ensuing scrum, the Sarries pack powers up again and Daly sends his team 15-3 in front. 

Leinster do actually win a scrum penalty minutes later, likely within Sexton’s range inside the right-hand 15-metre line and Sarries’ 10-metre line.


Leinster opt against kicking at goal to close to gap on the scoreboard, however, and go down the right-hand touchline, where their maul efforts earn two penalties in quick succession and see Gaüzère give Sarries a yellow-card warning.

But the English side then produce a huge turnover from the ensuing five-metre Leinster lineout. 

Cullen and co. may have gripes about a possible early counter-shove from Saracens but they will also be frustrated at how they managed the situation. As highlighted below, Sarries lock Tim Swinson swings a hand up and over onto ball-carrier Will Connors…


Unless someone can immediately break Swinson’s grip on Connors here, there is an obvious threat.

But Leinster don’t look to clear themselves of the danger as they focus on the maul rather than breaking away, with Swinson the swinging his other arm over to grip Connors with both hands…


… and then pulls Connors forward through into the Saracens defence and away from his own team-mates…


… where Koch and Jamie George smother Connors and earn a turnover scrum for Saracens.


It’s a massive moment in the game and highlights another theme – Leinster coming off second best in the maul exchanges.

Again, Leinster could have quibbles with some of Gaüzère’s decision-making in this area – particularly a Rhodes turnover late in the game – but much of it was down to diligent, aggressive Saracens work and an equal amount of poor play from the Irish province.

As was the case throughout the first half, Leinster accentuated the loss with another couple of errors immediately afterwards as they conceded a scrum penalty, then a maul penalty, leaving Saracens with an attacking lineout inside their half minutes later.

With what was their one real attacking strike of the game, Saracens clinically took their chance. It starts with George’s beautiful throw to Rhodes at the tail of the lineout. 


Playing off the top, out-half Goode sends Barritt on a direct carry into Sexton and Henshaw before Saracens cut Leinster apart on second phase.

It’s actually a slow recycle for Saracens but they get set into shape perfectly for their strike.


George [white below] has worked around the corner to set up at first receiver, while Billy Vunipola [red] is ready to run a flat, short line outside the hooker.


Goode [yellow] is tucking in behind George as he also points back to the left in a bid to deceive Leinster – holding Hugo Keenan in the backfield – while outside centre Taylor [pink] holds his depth to run a short, flat line off Goode in the second wave of the attack.

Left wing Sean Maitland [blue] has worked across as the third layer of the attack, offering a crucial possible option for Goode behind Taylor.

As George gets on the ball and beings to swivel to pass to Goode, Leinster have to respect the hard line of Vunipola [red below].


Connors, whose big job in this game is to limit Vunipola’s impact, sits down on Vunipola’s line in case George hits him short but the ball goes out the back to Goode. 

As Goode receives the pass, we can see that Vunipola actually collides with Connors up ahead of the ball [red below].


This could be interpreted as obstruction ahead of the ball but the match officials seemingly view it as a coming together of players with Connors having initially committed to Vunipola.

It really could go either way depending on your viewpoint but Vunipola running into Connors proves crucial to the try.

Goode gets on the ball and cleverly takes two steps forward to cause Sean Cronin [yellow below] concern on his inside shoulder.


Meanwhile, the presence of Maitland out the back is a worry for Ringrose [blue] who sits off the direct running line of Taylor [pink] in case Goode pulls the ball back a second time.

That combination of stresses for Cronin and Ringrose allows Taylor to pick a perfect line in between them and both Leinster defenders are then left turning to recover into the tackle with their arms, rather than getting a strong shoulder onto Taylor.


The minute detail of Goode’s forward steps and Maitland’s presence mean Cronin and, particularly, Ringrose can’t get into a good position to target the ball and Taylor gets his hands through to release a superb offload back inside to Goode.

The out-half is a crucial few steps ahead of Connors [red below], who has had to recover from the coming-together with Vunipola.


Leinster fullback Larmour [white below] has initially closed up towards the left edge of the frontline defence but he now needs to retreat and tackle Goode.


Showing poise on the ball, Goode throws a dummy pass inside to Maitland, who has worked through the line, and Larmour buys it to sit off the key threat.

And coming from the other side of the backfield, having initially been worried about Saracens bouncing back to their left, Leinster right wing Hugo Keenan [yellow] is left with too much ground to make up on Goode.


Saracens’ excellent stand-in out-half is able to finish through Keenan’s despairing tackle attempt and then he calmly tacks on the conversion for a stunning 22-3 Saracens lead that has Leinster reeling.

While Cullen’s men do improve after the break and get back to within five points, their miserable first half leaves them with far too much to do.

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