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Sensational Saracens deny Leinster a fifth European star with victory in Newcastle

Mark McCall’s men claimed their third Heineken Champions Cup in a stunning game at St James’ Park.

Leinster 10

Saracens 20

Murray Kinsella reports from St James’ Park

THIS MORE THAN lived up to the billing.

Two of the all-time great European clubs went toe to toe and emptied themselves in front of a 51,930 crowd in Newcastle.

This audience was treated to a stunning game of rugby as the sensational Saracens deservedly claimed their third Heineken Champions Cup, in the process denying Leinster the chance to secure a record fifth title as well as go back-to-back in this competition.

Billy Vunipola scores a try despite James Lowe and Luke McGrath Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Mark McCall’s side were simply awesome as their stunning power and slick cohesion proved enough to overcome a strong Leinster effort that probably would have been enough to beat any other team in Europe.

Leinster will have regrets, nonetheless, particularly a decision not to kick the ball out of play towards the end of the first half with regular time up, allowing Saracens to score a crucial try through Sean Maitland and level the game at 10-10 before the break.

Leinster then made errors with two visits into the Sarries 22 just after half-time, failing to be ruthless in good positions.

The outstanding Billy Vunipola – who was booed before the game and as he was replaced late on – bludgeoned his way over for the game-sealing try from a close-range scrum in the closing 15 minutes, the highlight of a sublime performance at number eight.

He was ably supported by the likes of man mountain Will Skelton, Maro Itoje and George Kruis in helping Saracens come out on top of the collisions in a game where those moments of contact were jaw-droppingly massive.

Owen Farrell slotted all four of his place-kicks and guided Saracens intelligently from out-half in a complete performance from McCall’s men, who defended sublimely too. 

Leo Cullen’s Leinster, who could manage only one try through Tadhg Furlong, will have to wait another year at least in their quest for a fifth European star.

Will Skelton Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

A sloppy offside penalty from Saracens off a lineout allowed Leinster to open the scoring early on, a focused Johnny Sexton slotting the three points but the English side were soon showing their awesome attacking cohesion. 

The error count prevented them from turning possession into scores, however, as Liam Williams knocked-on, Alex Goode fired a pass off Farrell’s head, then Goode dropped the ball – nearly allowing Jordan Larmour to score as he grubbered ahead, burned the Sarries trackback and just knocked-on as he looked to scoop the ball up and race clear.

Brad Barritt’s no-arms clearout under the Leinster posts denied Saracens on their next visit into the 22, after the likes of Skelton, Itoje and the Vunipolas had bullied Leinster in the carry.

Saracens’ defence looked dominant until a superb Rob Kearney linebreak inside Sean Maitland broke the game open, the Leinster fullback stopped just short of the tryline after scything through from 40 metres out. 

It proved to be a costly defensive set for Sarries, as they gave up three penalties in a row – resulting in Itoje going to the sin bin at the same time as the damaging loss of starting props Mako Vunipola and Titi Lamositele to injury.

Leinster opted for a scrum with the penalty under the posts and took full advantage against the 14 men, with Jack Conan and Sean O’Brien carrying before Furlong burrowed over for a try on his 100th appearance for the province.

Cian Healy celebrates Tadhg Furlong's try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With Sexton converting for a 10-0 lead, Leinster suddenly seemed in control but it didn’t last for long in an absorbing first half.

Sarries centre Alex Lozowski hammered Conan in the tackle before George Kruis did the same to Sexton, allowing sub tighthead Vincent Koch to win a turnover penalty that Farrell kicked.

Leinster then made a costly error just before the break as they opted against kicking the ball off the pitch with time up, scrum-half Luke McGrath box kicking infield, where Kearney failed to roll away in a ruck and referee Jerome Garces gave Sarries the penalty.

Farrell kicked up the left touchline and, restored to 15 players, the big carriers like Billy Vunipola, Itoje, Skelton and Jamie George battered at Leinster to bring them under the posts before the ball was flashed left, where Farrell beautifully swept it across his body under pressure from the onrushing Kearney to second Maitland over for the try.

The England out-half then stroked over the conversion from wide on the left to leave the game poised at 10-10. 

Sean Maitland celebrates his try with teammates Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sarries were sloppy again at the start of the second half, giving up two maul penalties to allow Leinster into their 22 but Furlong was stripped in the tackle by Kruis to release the pressure. 

But Cullen’s men came again as some sharp interplay between Sexton and Lowe brought them within range, only for Ringrose to carry when he had huge overlap to this right, before Healy ran through Kruis’ tackle in impressive fashion.

Leinster created a second overlap on the left but Liam Williams prevented the try with a brilliant ball-and-all tackle on Jordan Larmour, bouncing back off the ground to earn a turnover penalty.

Sarries then flooded forward at Leinster as Billy Vunipola made a bust from a lineout, only for Healy to jackal and win a breakdown penalty inside the Leinster 22 as the game continued to thrill.

Leinster hooker Sean Cronin – a doubt for this game due to a calf injury – was called ashore as we entered the final 30 minutes, only for replacement James Tracy to throw crooked into the lineout with his first involvement.

Devin Toner and George Kruis Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leinster were reduced to 14 in the 59th minute as Fardy was binned after a TMO review had denied Sarries a second try.

The passage began with Jackson Wray making a huge linebreak through O’Brien in midfield, before Vunipola, Skelton, Koch and Itoje’s carries left Saracens inches short. They came close to scoring off the base of the post but the TMO review was inconclusive.  Fardy was binned for being offside, however, and Farrell kicked the three points.

Itoje’s heart was then briefly in his mouth as Garces reviewed some contact in the air on Kearney – bringing up the possibility of a second yellow for the blindside flanker – but the Frenchman opted for a penalty only.

It gave Leinster another chance down in the Saracens 22 but Vunipola intercepted a Sexton pass and Sarries were able to clear downfield.

Too powerful to simply know, McCall’s side threatened to burst through the door again in the 64th minute as replacement scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth’s pass allowed Lozowski to scamper down the left, Leinster just stemming the tide metres out from the tryline.

Saracens got an attacking scrum with the ball unplayable, however, and they marched the seven-man Leinster pack backwards for a penalty, opting to scrum down again after Garces’ call.

And Leinster could cling on no longer from the second scrum as number eight Vunipola picked and carried from five metres out and thundered through Rhys Ruddock – just on the pitch – Sexton, McGrath and Lowe to reach out and score a try Farrell converted.

 

In a game as tight as this, with Saracens’ power continuing to smother them, Leinster simply couldn’t find a way back from there.

Leinster scorers:

Tries: Tadhg Furlong

ConversionsJohnny Sexton [1 from 1]

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [1 from 1]

Saracens scorers:

TriesSean Maitland, Billy Vunipola

ConversionsOwen Farrell [2 from 2]

PenaltiesOwen Farrell [2 from 2]

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy (Jack McGrath ’62), Seán Cronin (James Tracy ’51), Tadhg Furlong (Michael Bent ’70); Devin Toner (Max Deegan ’74), James Ryan; Scott Fardy, Seán O’Brien (Rhys Ruddock ’62), Jack Conan.

Replacements: Hugh O’Sullivan, Ross Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin.

SARACENS: Alex Goode; Liam Williams, Alex Lozowski, Brad Barritt (captain), Sean Maitland; Owen Farrell, Ben Spencer (Richard Wigglesworth ’56); Mako Vunipola (Richard Barrington ’30), Jamie George, Titi Lamositele (Vincent Koch ’30); Will Skelton (Nick Isiekwe ’62), George Kruis; Maro Itoje (yellow card ’30), Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola (Schalk Burger ’74).

Replacements: Joe Gray, Nick Tompkins, David Strettle.

Referee: Jerome Garces [FFR].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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