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Dublin: 1°C Tuesday 2 March 2021

Leinster's fifth star? Saracens' third title? A nail-biter awaits in Newcastle

The Heineken Champions Cup finalists are extremely evenly-matched.

Murray Kinsella reports from Newcastle

WHEN NEWCASTLE FALCONS played at St James’ Park for the first time last year, Fijian wing Vereniki Goneva gave a nod to Alan Shearer when he scored a try, raising his right arm to salute the crowd just like the England striker did in his time.

It remains to be seen whether anyone involved in today’s Heineken Champions Cup final between Leinster and Saracens at the Newcastle stadium [KO 5pm, Virgin Media/Channel 4/BT Sport] will mirror Goneva’s tribute to the Newcastle legend but it should prove a memorable venue for what could be the best European final yet.

A view of St. James' Park ahead of the game St James' Park in Newcastle. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Certainly, this is a meeting of two all-time giants of European club rugby.

Four-time winners Leinster can secure a record fifth title, taking them clear of Toulouse, while Mark McCall’s Saracens are targeting their third European crown.

Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell, James Ryan, Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong, Mako Vunipola, Garry Ringrose, Liam Williams – the cast of stars involved in this contest goes on and on. 

Some fear that the shuddering physical qualities of these teams and their brilliant defences could make this final difficult to watch, but most people are simply excited at the prospect of two great teams going head-to-head.

With the crowd expected to come close to filling the 52,354 capacity, Leinster have belief that they can earn the fifth star and go back-to-back after their success in another football stadium, Bilbao’s San Mamés, last year.

“We’ll take confidence from coming through a tough pool, we’ll take confidence from some of the challenges we’ve faced along the way this year,” said Leinster captain Johnny Sexton yesterday after getting his bearings on the St James’ Park pitch.

“Ulster really put it up to us in the quarter-final and Toulouse were in the in-form team and we looked after them really well in the semi-final. We’ll take confidence from all of that and we’ll take confidence from winning a trophy last year.

“But it will really come down to who plays best on the day.”

Saracens come into the decider in ominous form, having won all of their games so far in this competition and comfortably dealt with Munster in the semi-final.

Owen Farrell Owen Farrell during Saracens' captain's run yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

McCall’s men remain stung by the tepid nature of their performance against Leinster in last season’s European quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium, when they were missing some important players through injury but were simply too far off their best.

“There’s certainly a good sense in the team that we’ve had good momentum from the last year,” said Sarries captain Brad Barritt.

“We’ve learned a lot from that defeat to Leinster. The team are in great condition, we had good performances in the quarter-final and the semi-final but we’re aware we need to step it up another level against this Leinster team.”

Alongside Sexton, Leinster boss Leo Cullen said his team haven’t discussed becoming history-makers too often, even if that fifth star is in the back of their minds.

McCall, meanwhile, said nothing much at all – seemingly preferring for his players to do Saracens’ talking on the pitch.

And what a battle awaits on the carpet-like turf today. Saracens have kicked in play more often that Leinster in the competition, while the Irishmen have tended to have more possession.

But in most areas, these sides are exceptionally well-matched. 

Sexton versus Farrell has been widely discussed but the real key could be the other creative players around them.

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Fullback Alex Goode is a huge influence on Saracens’ attack, a genuine second playmaker in phase play and possessing the ability to beat defenders with footwork, the timing of his running lines and his passing range.

From Leinster’s point of view, Garry Ringrose’s dancing feet and intellect could be essential, while every single neutral will surely be delighted that James Lowe starts on the left wing.

James Lowe James Lowe at the stadium yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“James brings a lot to the team,” said Cullen. “There’s his own ability but I think the energy he gives everybody as well. He’s a very strong finisher, he’s very unpredictable in terms of what he can deliver.”

Lowe is part of a Leinster team that is unchanged from their semi-final win over Toulouse, although there are a couple of interesting calls on the bench from Cullen.

Sarries, meanwhile, show two changes to the XV that beat Munster in Coventry. 

They’re without the injured Michael Rhodes, usually an influential figure from the blindside flank and a try-scorer against  Munster, although the reshuffle adds different strengths.

Itoje moves into the number six shirt, with man mountain Will Skelton – enjoying some of the best form of his career – slotting into the second row to add even more physicality to this imposing Saracens pack.

21-year-old Nick Isiekwe, another England international, comes onto the bench. 

The other change to Saracens’ starting lineup is the reintroduction of experienced Scotland international Sean Maitland on the wing after David Strettle deputised superbly against Munster.

All in all, these two teams are locked and loaded and ready to deliver what should be an epic Champions Cup final. Referee Jerome Garces will have his hands full but both teams will be hoping a decision from the man in the middle isn’t the decisive factor.

Calling this one is truly difficult – extra time anyone? – but great rewards await the victors.

LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Scott Fardy, Seán O’Brien, Jack Conan.

Replacements: James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Michael Bent, Rhys Ruddock, Max Deegan, Hugh O’Sullivan, Ross Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin.

SARACENS: Alex Goode; Liam Williams, Alex Lozowski, Brad Barritt (captain), Sean Maitland; Owen Farrell, Ben Spencer; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Titi Lamositele; Will Skelton, George Kruis; Maro Itoje, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: Joe Gray, Richard Barrington, Vincent Koch, Nick Isiekwe, Schalk Burger, Richard Wigglesworth, Nick Tompkins, David Strettle.

Referee: Jerome Garces [FFR].

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman tee up Saturday’s Champions Cup final and look at the backroom problems in Munster.:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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