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Leinster's new wave bully and blitz holders Saracens to storm into semi-finals

Leo Cullen’s side join Munster in the last four after an impressive three-try win at the Aviva Stadium.

Leinster celebrate Leavy's try.
Leinster celebrate Leavy's try.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Leinster 30

Saracens 19

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium

THIS WAS LEINSTER in full big-game mode, their new wave reaching rarefied heights with an utterly ferocious, clinical and breathtaking performance to dispatch the back-to-back defending champions.

Leo Cullen’s side were colossal in everything they did, dominating the breakdown with intensity and hunger, and controlling a contest they never let slip from their grasp, to join Munster in the Champions Cup semi-finals.

After six wins from six in the pool stages, and the tag of favourites and top seeds, Leinster lived up the billing and more through tries from Garry Ringrose, the outstanding Dan Leavy and James Lowe to end Saracens’ reign and underline the province’s renewed credentials as a European force to be reckoned with.

A home semi against the Scarlets at this place awaits, and on the evidence of these 80 minutes, coupled with everything that has gone before this season, this Leinster side — consummate, experienced and driven — have every capacity to emulate the great teams of 2009, 2011, 2012.

If today was to provide a sense-check of where they are in the European rugby pecking order and the ultimate yardstick in terms of their own progress under Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, they passed it with flying colours, and more encouraging is the fact there is that there is plenty more to come.

Saracens — disappointing in so many aspects — focused too much on unsettling Johnny Sexton but the out-half and his team are bigger and better than that, ensuring they produced their very best when it mattered as the Grand Slam-winning contingent picked up where they left off.

There are no more superlatives left to describe what Leavy brings to the party — man of the match again here for a remarkable shift — while Cian Healy, James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Rob Kearney and Jordi Murphy were all immense. To a man, Leinster stood up and won their individual battles.

Dan Leavy runs in a try despite the efforts from Owen Farrell Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ringrose set them on their way with an early score under the posts and while Saracens’ excellent kicking game kept Leinster under pressure for much of the first half, the home side then upped the intensity again after the interval to pull clear and blow the holders away.

A ruthless 20-minute spell settled this game, during which Leavy and Lowe crossed. It was impressive, gripping and the stuff of champions — they will take some stopping.

And unlike the semi-final in Lyon 11 months ago, Leinster made a fast start and that made a huge difference.

After James Ryan soared and gathered Farrell’s kick off, Lowe sliced his left-footed clearing kick out on the full. Not to worry, he created the magic moments later.

Strength, dexterity and that trademark one-handed offload inside after bursting through Liam Williams, the Kiwi winger set the supporting Nacewa away, who, ever-willing, continues to defy his 35 years. Ringrose and Luke McGrath were inside, the former cruising home to finish under the posts for his fourth European try.

Ringrose-Nacewa-Lowe-Nacewa-Ringrose, the perfect Leinster palindrome shred Saracens apart down the left. Gorgeous. Dream start.

Leinster’s tails were up, a full Aviva resplendent in blue. A solid maul from the restart, thrown wide through the hands, Ringrose in acres of space and then Kearney, in full flight, galloping through midfield before grubbering deep into Saracens territory on the far side.

But Saracens were not here to roll over. Maku Vunipola was colossal, working hard and carrying harder, as the visitors enjoyed 64 per cent of the first half possession, and just as much territory.

Ryan and Leavy double-teamed Schalk Burger but Sarries were winning most of the collisions, many of which were fercerious, and through the boot of Farrell were reaping the reward for periods of sustained, and patient, possession.

Leinster stood firm through 13 and then 11 brutal phases, Leavy and Healy leading an energy-sapping defensive effort, before the hosts were caught offside under the posts, allowing Farrell to open Saracens’ account.

Farrell knocked over his second penalty shortly after, this time Ringrose pinged for going off his feet as Sarries continued to probe as Williams and Sean Maitland stretched the Leinster defence left, then right. It was delivering, alright.

Johnny Sexton with Owen Farrell scuffle Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Saracens are so good at controlling and pressuring, particularly through a superb kicking game, and they were quick off the line defensively, often bordering on the illegal side with their heavy and targeted treatment of Sexton.

Maro Itoje came through late and gave the out-half a dead leg, providing the now mandatory first-half injury scare, and then George Kruis clattered into Sexton high. Back up, he launched the penalty deep into Sarries territory and then dissected the posts from range to restore Leinster’s four-point advantage.

And so it ebbed and flowed, almost impossible to take your eyes off.

Farrell hit back instantly at the other end after Murphy’s hands were spotted in the ruck, before Sarries stepped over the mark again in their efforts to disrupt Sexton after Burger had done brilliantly to scrag the slaloming Kearney in midfield.

Richard Wigglesworth made no attempts to wrap his arms and came through to hit Sexton with a shoulder charge as the out-half looked to offload inside for Scott Fardy. Leinster were taking full advantage.

Sean Cronin hit Toner at the set-piece and another powerful and compact driving maul gave the hosts real momentum into the Sarries 22, only for Itoje to reach out over the top and steal possession for his side. Leinster weren’t finished, however.

A huge counter-ruck turnover, led by the outstanding Leavy after the pack put the Sarries scrum under all sorts of pressure, forced the penalty under the posts for Sexton to make it 13-9 heading towards the break. Huge work from Healy, in particular.

But after all Leinster’s good work, came Sexton’s one moment of indiscretion, no doubt fuelled by his own sense of injustice. Slapping the ball from Williams’ grasp as he looked to restart was minor in comparison, but punishable nonetheless and Marcelo Bosch landed the penalty attempt from half-way, leaving it on a knife-edge at 13-12 at the break.

Not for long, though.

Fardy’s line out steal on the stroke of half-time sent Leinster into the sheds with all the impetus and Sexton ensured that was reflected on the scoreboard after Kearney again scythed through after getting on the outside shoulder to latch onto Leavy’s ball back inside.

James Lowe celebrates his try Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Back we went for the penalty on halfway after Nick Isiekwe’s high tackle and Sexton, unerringly accurate from the tee, struck it sweetly to extend the advantage to 16-12.

Leinster were in the driving seat. Ringrose’s delicious low kick in behind was weighted to absolute perfection, the bouncing ball trickling into touch yards from the Sarries line and the home side struck a couple of phases later.

Fergus McFadden ran the clearing back, the forwards continued their tireless work around the fringes, clearing out rucks like men possessed. Cronin gained yards initially and then clever work from Ryan and Leavy, the two Michael’s boys, sent the former through and away under the posts.

Leavy played scrum-half, popped it to Ryan before taking it back to scamper through the gate and dive over, with Sexton converting. The new wave, beautiful skills, a joy to watch. 21-12.

Ryan was heavily involved in Leinster’s third score. A monster carry gave his side front-foot ball again and when it was moved wide to Ringrose, via Sexton and McGrath, the blue shirts were descending on the Sarries line, with Nacewa shunting Itoje out of the way to allow Lowe, in the thick of it, to get it down amid a ton of bodies.

The Aviva was rocking, but Saracens weren’t quite finished.

For the first time, they added variety to their attack and it reaped instant dividends as they stretched Leinster, exposing them out wide only for Williams to lose his footing at the crucial moment to clatter into McFadden at force.

Sean Maitland, Jackson Wray and Maro Itoje with Luke McGrath Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

They made it count in the next move, however, with Kearney penalised and the line out maul caused the damage, allowing replacement Blair Cowan to fall over the whitewash moments after coming on. Farrell converted to bring it back to 30-19 with 15 minutes left on the clock.

The toll of a bruising affair was beginning to tell as McGrath and Sexton both needed medical attention, and Cullen hoped an injection of fresh legs would see his side over the line, with the returning Rhys Ruddock, Andrew Porter, James Tracy, Nick McCarthy and Joey Carbery all tasked with seeing the job out.

And that they did, even with the late sin-binning of Toner, wasting down the final minutes like the ruthless winners they have become.

A monumental display, an emphatic victory, and a place in the last four.

Leinster scorers:
Tries: Garry Ringrose, Dan Leavy, James Lowe
Penalties: Johnny Sexton [3 from 3]
Conversions: Johnny Sexton [2 from 2], Fergus McFadden [1 from 1]
Saracens scorers:
Tries: Blair Cowan
Penalties: Owen Farrell [3 from 3], Marcelo Bosch [1 from 1]
Conversions: Owen Farrell [1 from 1]

LEINSTER: 15. Rob Kearney, 14. Fergus McFadden, 13. Garry Ringrose, 12. Isa Nacewa (Rory O’Loughlin 79′), 11. James Lowe, 10. Johnny Sexton (Joey Carbery 68’), 9. Luke McGrath (Nick McCarthy 65’); 1. Cian Healy (Jack McGrath 53’), 2. Seán Cronin (James Tracy 60’), 3. Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter 65’), 4. Devin Toner, 5. James Ryan, 6. Scott Fardy (Rhys Ruddock 65’), 7. Dan Leavy, 8. Jordi Murphy (Max Deegan 79′)

SARACENS: 15. Alex Goode, 14. Liam Williams (Chris Wyles 63′), 13. Marcelo Bosch (Alex Lozowski 60′), 12. Brad Barritt, 11. Sean Maitland, 10. Owen Farrell, 9. Richard Wigglesworth (Ben Spencer 60′); 1. Mako Vunipol (Richard Barrington 77′), 2. Jamie George (Schalk Brits 52’), 3. Juan Figallo (Titi Lamositele 65′), 4. Maro Itoje, 5. George Kruis (Dominic Day 77′), 6. Nick Isiekwe, 7. Schalk Burger (Blair Cowan 59’), 8. Jackson Wray.

Referee: Jerome Garces.

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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