Superb Saracens power to shock victory in Dublin to end Leinster's European quest

Johnny Sexton and co. were second best against Mark McCall’s outstanding Sarries.

Leinster 17

Saracens 25

THEY MUSTERED A response in the second half to ensure we had a compelling Champions Cup quarter-final, but Leinster’s quest for a fifth European star will have to wait until next year at the earliest.

Somewhat characteristically, Saracens rocked into Dublin and rained on Leinster’s parade by producing a superb performance to completely upset the odds and earn a well-deserved victory.

The Irish province’s 25-game winning streak came shuddering to a halt on home soil and the most frustrating thing of all is that defeats to Saracens bookend it. Having lost to the English side in last season’s Champions Cup final, Leo Cullen’s men again failed to find the formula to outfox or outpunch this much-depleted but mightily resilient Sarries side.

jack-conan-dejected-after-the-game Leinster endured a miserable first half at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Fresh from their Guinness Pro14 success last weekend, Leinster left themselves in a massive hole as they trailed 22-3 at the interval after a remarkably poor first half, albeit one in which Mark McCall’s Sarries were sensational.

The English side, who are determined to retain their European title before heading into the Championship for 2020/21, suffocated Leinster with their defence for long stretches of the game, more than matched the Irish side’s power, pressured them with accurate box-kicking, and scored a brilliant try through the superb Alex Goode.

With the suspended Owen Farrell missing, regular fullback Goode stepped into the number 10 shirt and scored 19 points, while the Saracens pack was devastatingly good at scrum time as Springbok tighthead Vincent Koch led a relentless dominance of the Leinster front row.

With Maro Itoje and Michael Rhodes spoiling and hassling, Brad Barritt hammering everything in his sight, and fullback Elliot Daly smashing over long-range penalties on the back of the scrum success, McCall’s men had all the better performers.

As for Leinster, they simply didn’t fire a shot in a miserable first half. Though they looked shell-shocked, there was some response thereafter as Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour crossed for tries but Saracens had enough to dig in and hold their lead.

Having failed to show what they’re capable of, this defeat will cause Leinster deep frustration and regret for some months to come. Once again, when they met a side who could deal with their power and win the gainline, Cullen’s men failed to find an answer.

Meanwhile, Saracens march into a semi-final away to the winners of the Clermont v Racing 92 quarter-final and they will very much be targetting their fourth title.

johnny-sexton-comes-up-against-elliot-daly Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Leinster’s sloppy start didn’t bode well as Jack Conan spilled the kick-off forward and then Porter was pinged for not rolling away from a tackle, allowing Goode to strike the first blow on the scoreboard in just the third minute. 

Sexton did level the game with what turned out to be his side’s only points of the first half just after when Porter won a turnover penalty at the breakdown, but the Leinster captain was then sloppy in failing to release after a tackle on Billy Vunipola and Goode slotted three more points.

The stand-in out-half extended that lead when a wild Luke McGrath pass left Leinster under pressure in their 22 and James Ryan was penalised for going off his feet at the breakdown.

Saracens’ defence stood up impressively on the first Leinster visit into their 22, with Itoje intercepting a McGrath pass, while Richard Wigglesworth’s box-kicking was causing the Pro14 champions bother too.

The English outfit’s scrum turned up the power in the second quarter, with two dominant penalty wins near the halfway line allowing fullback Daly, with the wind behind him, to smash over 53-metre and 49-metre efforts off the tee in quick succession – a dire Sexton restart that didn’t travel 10 metres and went into touch in between them.

elliot-daly-kicks Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It felt like a massive moment when Saracens turned over the Leinster maul five metres form their own tryline in the 35th minute after an extended sequence of pressure in. Off the back of that priceless turnover, a couple more set-piece penalties allowed Saracens an attacking platform in the Leinster half and they struck brilliantly from a lineout on the left, around 30 metres out.

After Saracens hit up in midfield, hooker George made a link pass out the back to Goode, who found centre Duncan Taylor running a hard line. The Scotland international offloaded back inside to Goode, who sold Jordan Larmour with a dummy and then had the pace to finish past the covering Hugo Keenan.

32-year-old Goode confidently added the conversion and Leinster were left in a massive hole trailing 22-3. 

Daly had a shot from nearly 60 metres out after yet another scrum penalty win for Koch, but it dropped short and James Lowe nudged the ball into touch in relief to end a truly miserable half for Leinster. 

alex-goode-scores-a-try-despite-hugo-keenan Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leinster needed a perfect start to the second half and a penalty straight off the restart for Sean Maitland blocking on Keenan gave them a good chance to get it, but they left another visit to the Saracens 22 empty-handed as Itoje won a jackal turnover penalty. 

McCall’s men continued to apply aerial pressure on Larmour with their box-kicking but a breakout from Robbie Henshaw and Sexton from a Leinster scrum in their own half gave the home team much-needed momentum, producing a penalty from the scrambling Saracens and, finally, Leinster made a 22 visit count – just after Ronan Kelleher and Ryan Baird had been sprung from the bench.

From the five-metre lineout on the right, a backline play nearly saw Keenan sneak through before Leinster carried aggressively with tight phases in the shadow of the posts, ending with Porter forcing his way over and Sexton converting for 10-22 with half an hour left.

With the wind behind them and Josh van der Flier coming off the bench, Leinster felt momentum swinging their way but their next visit down into the Saracens’s 22 saw Baird choke-tackled by Rhodes for a crucial turnover. Yet another Sarries scrum penalty followed.

The soon-to-be-Championship side continued to defend ferociously but a needless late tackle on Sexton by Rhodes gave up a penalty, albeit only on TMO review as Pascal Guazere missed it, and Leinster were back down in the Sarries 22. They made this one count.

From the right, Jamison Gibson-Park fired a perfect pass to Rory O’Loughlin, both of them just off the bench, and O’Loughlin pulled the ball behind Garry Ringrose to Sexton, who skipped Keenan to Larmour and the Leinster fullback showed his pace to finish a wonderful set-piece score.

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jordan-larmour-competes-in-the-air-with-brad-barritt Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Sexton’s extras made it 17-22 with just over 15 minutes to go and Leinster’s sense of having the edge was palpable as their superior bench started to make an impact.

Ringrose brilliantly chased down Gibson-Park’s kick to force Wigglesworth into touch around 20 metres from his own line, but then the Saracens pack produced some fierce maul defence to earn a relieving turnover.

Sarries soon had a shot at goal down the other end as England international George won a breakdown penalty but Goode’s shot was wide and Leinster still trailed by just five points.

Daly missed with another shot in the closing 10 minutes but Goode closed out the game with a sharp three-pointer from wide on the right, as the defending champions cleverly and calmly pinned Leinster into their own half.

Leinster scorers:

Tries: Andrew Porter, Jordan Larmour

Conversions: Johnny Sexton [2 from 2]

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [1 from 1]

Saracens scorers:

Tries: Alex Goode

Conversions: Alex Goode [1 from 1]

Penalties: Alex Goode [4 from 5], Elliot Daly [2 from 3]

LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw (Rory O’Loughlin ’62), James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain) (Ross Byrne ’66), Luke McGrath (Jamison Gibson-Park ’62); Cian Healy (Ed Byrne ’57), Sean Cronin (Ronan Kelleher ’43), Andrew Porter (Michael Bent ’73); Devin Toner (Ryan Baird ’43), James Ryan; Caelan Doris, Will Connors (Josh van der Flier ’53), Jack Conan. 

SARACENS: Elliot Daly; Alex Lewington, Duncan Taylor, Brad Barritt (captain), Sean Maitland; Alex Goode, Richard Wigglesworth (Aled Davies ’69); Mako Vunipola (Richard Barrington ’69), Jamie George, Vincent Koch; Maro Itoje, Tim Swinson (Callum Hunter-Hill ’65); Mike Rhodes (Calum Clark ’73), Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: Tom Woolstencroft, Alec Clarey, Manu Vunipola, Dom Morris.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from the Aviva Stadium

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