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Dublin: 3 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019
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Sexton braced for backlash as Saracens take lessons from Leinster

The English champions lost last year’s quarter-final to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium, a result Sexton says was a ‘turning point’ for the Premiership side.

Sean Farrell reports from the Aviva Stadium

JONATHAN SEXTON HAS heard enough from Saracens over the past year to know England’s leading club won’t fear, but relish the chance to meet Leinster again.

The clubs, who account for the last three Heineken Champions Cup winners, went head-to-head last season at the quarter final stage. On that day, Saracens had scraped through the pool stage while Leinster had home advantage with no shortage of momentum from a host of freshly-minted Grand Slam winners.

Sexton may well remember the physicality of the contest which Leinster won out 30-19, but he also took notice of Saracens’ reaction to the loss.

James Tracy, Johnny Sexton, Fergus McFadden scuffle with George Kruis and Owen Farrell Sexton and Owen Farrell get in eachothers' personal space during last year's quarter-final. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Just as Leinster used the twin 2017 semi-final losses to Clermont and Scarlets to spur them on last season, Saracens have not allowed defeat in Dublin to slip to the back of their mind.

“I can’t believe the amount of times they’ve referred to our [quarter-final] game and even you hear their coaches all the time talking about it,” Sexton said in the wake of yesterday’s 30-12 semi-final win over Toulouse.

So it’s a big regret for them and a big learning point and I’m sure they’ll be relishing getting the chance to put things right against us. The psychology of that is something we’ll have to sort out and talk about but they’re an exceptional team.

“We’ll be up against it, but it’s a challenge that we’re looking forward to.”

Leinster have three weeks to prepare for the task and thanks to their dominance of the Pro14 regular season they have the luxury of choosing whether to wrap front-liners in cotton wool until 11 May or unleashing them for another hit-out in Ravenhill next weekend.

Either way, they will not need to see the firing line within 13 days of the trip to Newcastle.  Head coach Leo Cullen will seek a balance, but the intensity of the English champions may well lead him towards the side of energy conservation.

“It’s a pretty dangerous combination,” Cullen says of Saracens’ knack of dominating territory and possession, “with the power they have in their team, if you’re constantly defending it’s going to be tough work against them.

Leo Cullen during the post match press conference Cullen with Scott Fardy post-match yesterday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“So you need to be able – to use the cliché I suppose – fire shots. You need to be able to play against them, and how you manage possession (is key). But they’re a very efficient team. They don’t burn that much energy. They’re happy through 3, 6, 9, 12 early in a game, so your discipline needs to be good and now allow that scoreboard pressure. They’re a very hard team to chase the game against because they just strangle you then.”

“They’re a well coached team. They’ve been doing it for a number of years now. They’ve built a lot of experience as a group together as well which makes them doubly dangerous. They’re great challenge for us.”

“It’s really exciting. We talked about it being a privilege to be in a semi-final, it’s an absolute privilege now to be in final, and now we’ve just got to get busy working again, which is a great thing.”

 “We just need to get the heads down again now and understand what it’s going to take, and put a good plan together.”

Leinster will go to Newcastle in search of a record fifth European Cup. So far, they are four from four in Heineken Champions Cup deciders, while Saracens built on their 2014 loss to Toulon to return for back-to-back wins in 2016 and 2017.

Sexton can’t say whether Saracens will be his toughest final opponent yet – Leicester, Racing or Northampton with a 16-point head-start ought not to be forgotten – but the out-half and captain did reiterate that it will be “a massive battle” while head coach Cullen stressed the importance of playing the match rather than the occasion.

“The main thing is just not to get too caught up in the occasion. It’s another game of rugby that we need to prepare well for so guys are clear around what’s expected of them.

“It’s unusual in that we’ll go to a ground we’ve never gone to before, similar to last year in Bilbao, so we understand what that’s like.

James Lowe celebrates after the game James Lowe celebrates the win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The main thing is that (and) physically resting up and recovering for guys when they get those windows. Players get managed well by the backroom team so they’re able to fire as well as possible at this time of year and give all of themselves when it comes to these big games.

“That’s the important part, and then not getting too caught up in the occasion, making sure that we play the game because it’s another 80 minutes we need to get a win from.”

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Sean Farrell

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