Much-changed Saracens have 'a few plans up our sleeve' for Leinster

Leo Cullen’s men have a score to settle after last year’s Champions Cup final.

IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE to miss the glint of mischief in Alex Sanderson’s eye as the Saracens assistant coach underlined that the English side will be coming to Dublin this weekend fighting every inch of the way to spoil the party.

Leinster notched their 25th consecutive win in all competitions as they retained their Guinness Pro14 title in dominant fashion on Saturday night against Ulster but their next challenge looks like being the toughest yet of the restarted season.

Saracens, the last team to beat Leo Cullen’s side, will be in Dublin on Saturday to take on Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Though they’ve been hit hard by the revelations of their financial cheating and subsequent relegation into the Championship for next season, they remain the defending European champions and will not be relinquishing that title easily.

billy-vunipola-scores-a-try-despite-james-lowe-and-luke-mcgrath Billy Vunipola scores in last season's final in Newcastle. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“We are by far and away huge underdogs, but we won’t go there without a fight,” said Sanderson on BT Sport after Saracens’ 40-17 win over Exeter in the Premiership yesterday, when both clubs fielded much-weakened teams.

“We’ve got a few little plans up our sleeve. I think we’re the only team to beat them in the last couple of years, so maybe there’s a seed of doubt in their minds there as well.”

While other sides have beaten Leinster in the last few years – Toulouse, Ulster, and Glasgow – the defeat to Saracens in Newcastle in the 2018/19 Champions Cup final is the one that has really rankled. The likes of Johnny Sexton and Stuart Lancaster won’t have forgotten the frustration.

Of course, they will meet a different version of Mark McCall’s side this weekend.

For starters, Owen Farrell is missing due to his suspension for a horror high tackle, while Liam Williams, Alex Lozowski, Ben Spencer, Titi Lamositele, Will Skelton, and George Kruis – all of whom started last season’s final – have left the club.

Other talented players like Ben Earl, Max Malins, Nick Isiekwe, Jack Singleton, Joe Gray, Nick Tompkins, Juan Figallo, Rhys Carré, and Matt Gallagher have also departed, albeit some of them only on loan deals through to the summer of 2021.

So Leinster’s favouritism for this quarter-final is clear, particularly given how Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s team have built even more cohesion since that defeat in Newcastle.

But Saracens still have many dangerous weapons in their armoury. Mako Vunipola is due back from injury to potentially join England team-mate Jamie George and World Cup-winning Springbok Vincent Koch in the front row.

The hugely in-form Maro Itoje will be ultra-motivated in the second row alongside the experienced Tim Swinson or the ever-improving talents of Callum Hunter-Hill or Joel Kpoku.

mako-vunipola-celebrates-after-the-game Mako Vunipola is due back from injury. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Itoje will be relentless in his assault on Leinster’s lineout, which stuttered damagingly against Ulster last weekend. 

Billy Vunipola will lead the charge from number eight, with other quality options like Michael Rhodes and Jackson Wray available in the back row.

Richard Wigglesworth will bring nous and an excellent kicking game from scrum-half, having noted some of Munster and Ulster’s aerial wins over the Leinster backfield in recent times.

Brad Barritt will be as hard-nosed in midfield as ever, while the likes of Elliot Daly, Sean Maitland, and Alex Lewington offer firepower in the outside backs.

Regular fullback Alex Goode has covered out-half for Saracens several times before and could be a smart option there for this Leinster clash, but 20-year-old playmaker Manu Vunipola is an excellent young player.

All in all, Saracens will turn up with a formidable starting team that has spent the last few months obsessing over how to beat Leinster. 

With nothing to play for in the restarted 2019/20 Premiership season, McCall and his coaching staff have been investing themselves in breaking down Leinster’s strengths and weaknesses in minute detail. While Cullen’s men have been busy preparing for their Pro14 fixtures, Saracens have been dedicating their training sessions to Leinster prep.

Though Farrell completely deserved his five-game ban, it is something of a shame that the England out-half won’t be involved at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, but there is much to look forward to nonetheless.

Leinster will feel they have a score to settle, while Saracens will be keen to cause an upset and go on to claim another European title before they bow out of the top flight of rugby for 2020/21. 

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