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Saracens steamrolled Leinster into submission to claim their third Champions Cup with a deserved victory last Saturday at St James’s Park but, with the PRO14 semi-finals this weekend, there is still plenty to play for.
They were two well-matched sides, full of pace and power. Much was made of the physical confrontation ahead of the game. Saracens have a habit of bullying teams with their immense physicality – could Leinster stand up to it? In the end the answer was ‘no’. The English side slowly began to impose themselves on the game as the second period wore on and the final result was inevitable even ten minutes from the end.
Leinster will learn from this and come back stronger next year, but it will be a bitter pill to swallow for now. The turning point was undoubtedly the last five minutes of the first half. Leinster appeared to be handling the Saracens threat until then without too much difficulty, but the English side showed the killer instinct of champions and hit back in lethal fashion.
After barely troubling the Leinster line for long spells, a soft penalty got them on the board before Owen Farrell opted to kick for the corner as the clock went into the red after Rob Kearney was harshly pinged for not rolling away after tackling Billy Vunipola just outside the Saracens 22. Moments later Sean Maitland crashed over and Farrell’s conversion sent the sides in level at the break at 10-10 with Jonathan Sexton’s early penalty and Tadgh Furlong’s try just a distant memory.
The Leinster faithful were shocked and you can be sure that the dressing room was a lot quieter than it might have been for the half-time team talk. But they responded well after the restart and enjoyed plenty of possession inside the Saracens 22, but got turned over on more than one occasion or saw passes intercepted with the line seemingly at their mercy.
You could sense that the balance of power was shifting and every bounce of the ball seemed to favour Saracens after that. A second Farrell penalty put them ahead for the first time just before the hour mark before Billy Vunipola crashed over under the posts on 66 minutes to realistically put the game beyond Leinster. It was a superb display of power rugby. Saracens didn’t have too many chances in the game but, unlike their opponents it could be argued, they made most of them count.
It’s very easy to pick holes in the Leinster performance after the fact. The truth is that they made a couple of unforced errors and one or two questionable decisions, but that’s about it. They may be filled with regret, but there is definitely nothing to be ashamed of. This was a very tight game. The margins were tiny, but Saracens fought their way into the ascendency and deserved their win in the end. The appointment of Jerome Garces to referee the game was the subject of plenty of discussion beforehand and, while he allowed Saracens some scope beyond the last foot, he did a pretty decent job overall.
The Champions Cup is gone for this year and, like everything else in life, it’s what happens next that counts and Leo Cullen must lift his team ahead of the PRO14 semi-final against Munster at the RDS on Saturday (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 1.30pm).
Munster will be gunning for their rivals in this one. They have had an additional seven days rest and that could be crucial, although Leinster’s extensive squad will mean they have plenty of options. That includes Josh van der Flier who has made a quicker than expected return following a long injury lay-off and Jamison Gibson-Park. There were no injuries reported from last weekend.
Munster, for their part, will be boosted by the return of Joey Carbery and Keith Earls and, like virtually every single game between the pair in recent years, we should be in for a fascinating contest. The breakdown will once again be key as will the scrum where the visitors will need to show some improvement after getting shoved around by Benetton in the quarter-final two weeks ago. Will Munster rise to the occasion? Will Leinster still be suffering from a Champions Cup hangover? We shall see.
The other semi-final sees Ulster travel to Scotland to take on Glasgow on Friday night (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 7pm). Dan McFarland’s men looked impressive in the quarter-final victory over Connacht, but will have to play out of their skins to get past a very formidable Glasgow side. They have a number of their key players back from injury, most notably Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy, but it’s hard to see them winning this one.
That said, as we all know, stranger things have happened on a rugby pitch…..
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