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Dublin: 7°C Wednesday 28 October 2020
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Seven scrum pens and five misses in the 22 - Leinster left with big regrets

Saracens’ pack dominated Leo Cullen’s men up front in an impressive performance.

NO SCRUM, NO win.

Yesterday was a reminder of the enduring importance of the set-piece as Saracens won seven penalties at scrum time against Leinster, kicking nine points directly from those successes.

With an eight-point winning margin sending Saracens into the Champions Cup finals, it was hard to ignore how crucial their scrum was. Tighthead Vincent Koch and hooker Jamie George had huge 80-minute shifts, and Mako Vunipola excelled in a 70-minute effort on a humbling afternoon for Leinster’s pack.

jamie-george-and-vincent-koch-celebrate-winning-a-scrum Saracens celebrate a scrum penalty against Leinster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In truth, this 25-17 victory for Mark McCall’s men wasn’t just about the scrum though.

The brilliant Sarries pack, led by the relentless Maro Itoje once again, did a job on Leinster’s maul too, winning a couple of crucial turnovers at that source, as well as milking penalties from Leinster too.

Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth box-kicked superbly throughout as the English side’s tactics in this area caused James Lowe and Jordan Larmour repeated stress.

In amongst the box kicks, a clever grubber from centre Duncan Taylor in the first half put Leinster in a tough position, from where they self-destructed with two poor Luke McGrath and Larmour passes to hand Alex Goode an easy kick at goal for three points. After all the signs of growth in their own kicking game in recent weeks, Leinster never really fired a shot in this regard. 

Defensively, Saracens were superb as they made 177 tackles to Leinster’s 84. With Itoje, Brad Barritt, Koch, George, Mako Vunipola, and Michael Rhodes all prominent, they muscled up to Leinster’s ball-carriers in a way that no one else has done for a long time – possibly since Sarries beat Leinster in last year’s European final.

Leo Cullen’s side were damagingly sloppy at key times. Devin Toner and Jack Conan confused the very first kick-off receipt of the game for the latter to knock-on, while there was uncharacteristically poor passing intermittently throughout the game from Leinster, as well as a couple of crucial knock-ons.

They did score tries through Andrew Porter and Larmour in the second half, the latter finishing a slick set-piece effort but Leinster were simply too wasteful with their visits into the Saracens 22 in this game.

maro-itoje-celebrates-at-the-full-time-whistle Maro Itoje was relentless in hassling Leinster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The image of Itoje intercepting McGrath’s pass in the 14th minute metres out from the Saracens tryline endures – Itoje was definitely onside, although it appeared a hand in the ruck from Rhodes bought him time to get off the line – but Leinster had several other failings when they got into promising positions.

They had seven visits into the Saracens 22 in total and scored on just two of those occasions. That’s simply not clinical enough against the best teams, which Saracens clearly remain despite seeing so many players leave the club in recent months. 

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In stark contrast, Saracens had just two attacking visits into the Leinster 22 and scored points on both occasions, the first coming directly from that kick-off botch as they won a penalty when Andrew Porter didn’t roll away and Goode slotted his shot at goal.

The second visit was Goode finishing the stunning Saracens try from set-piece, a beautiful play of the kind they have been cutting teams apart with for years. It was delightfully-constructed and perfectly-executed in what was essentially Sarries’ one and only attacking thrust of the game with ball in hand. What an effective one it was.

Only seven minutes before – after they had opted against a shot at goal – Leinster had been camped five metres from the Saracens tryline but they were turned over in the maul, conceded a scrum penalty, gave up a defensive maul penalty, then conceded the try to Goode – who was brilliant at out-half in Owen Farrell’s absence.

Along with those two successful visits into the Leinster 22, Saracens happily tacked on three points off the tee whenever possible, meaning their 35% shares of possession and territory were less significant.

Goode’s try was essentially the deciding of the game as Saracens moved into a 22-3 lead just before half-time, the kind of deficit that only a miracle can pull the trailing team back from.

There were hints of something along those lines as Porter and Larmour crossed to score but Leinster continued to be plagued by Saracens and the same issues that had left them in such an insurmountable hole at the break. 

alex-goode-celebrates Goode was excellent at out-half for Saracens. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s hopes that Leinster’s bench would allow them to nudge clear in the closing quarter never materialised because they were desperately chasing the game and making errors as they did so.

There were eight other penalties to go along with the scrum calls and though Leinster will certainly have grievances over some of Pascal Guazere’s decisions, it’s impossible to argue against Saracens as worthy winners.

With a dominant pack of forwards and pressurising kicking game, as well as the crucial blow of a brilliant set-piece attacking play for Goode’s try, Saracens’ plan worked to a tee and Leinster’s 25-game winning streak came to a crushing end.

It will be intriguing how Sarries back this up – they travel to Racing 92 in next weekend’s semi-finals – before they bow out of top-flight rugby for the 2020/21 season, but there can be no doubt that they’ve had the better of this rivalry with Leinster in recent years.

The Irish province beat McCall’s side in the 2018 quarter-finals in Dublin, but Saracens earned victory in last season’s European final in St James’ Park.

That defeat rankled with Leinster all the way through to yesterday, which makes it doubly frustrating that this latest meeting resulted in the same outcome and in much the same manner, even after Sarries had lost so many key men to other clubs, and suspension in the case of the talismanic Farrell.

Leinster won’t get another shot at Sarries next season and they simply have to accept that McCall’s men had their number.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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