As much as everyone loves a giant killing in a cup competition, such upsets often mean we miss out on a blockbuster final between a competitions two best participants. However, there can be little debate over the credentials of European Champions Cup finalists Leinster and Saracens being the best two clubs in European rugby this season. The two sides will take to the pitch at the iconic St James’ Park in Newcastle at 5pm on Saturday in a game which promises to be a classic. All over the pitch there are international players and no club fixture has more Lions featuring. What makes it even more intriguing are the individual match ups which could be so crucial in determining a winner.
A GAME OF RECORDS
Both sides are steeped in European heritage, Leinster will have the opportunity to become the first five time winners of the competition while Saracens will be bidding to become only the fourth side to win the competition on three or more occasions. Leinster will be bidding to retain the trophy they won last year in Bilbao, a win for Saracens would be their third in four years and cement their place as the dominant European side of the past five years. Saracens have gone through this European campaign winning every game, Leinster have been beaten only once in the past two campaigns and that was only by one point away to Toulouse in this years pool stage.
WILL THE MATCH BE WON OR LOST
It does appear impossible to emphatically justify a case for either side to win the match it’s a game where the team which executes better and is more clinical will come out on top. The coaches could really be the difference if they are able to identify a weakness in the opposition which can be exploited, the problem is the apparent lack of any weakness on either side. Both sides follow a similar game plan and normally batter their opponents into submission through relentless phase after phase on the offensive side. Both also implement a high pressure defensive game which smothers the opponent and forces mistakes. It could be a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, this could mean free flowing rugby and tries come at a premium but for the rugby purist offers the mouth watering possibility of a brutal game of strategy won and lost by one small error or one moment of magic, the hope will certainly be for the latter on such a mammoth occasion. Expect the ball to spend a lot of time in the air, whether this is to gain territory or to challenge remains to be seen.
WHAT THE COACHES THINK
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen has urged his players to focus on themselves and what they can do as opposed to putting too much focus on the opposition. The Irish province have an enviable record of winning every European final they have played in. He said, “It is a fine balance, you can’t be just thinking about the opposition. You need to understand what makes Leinster a hard team to play against and what it took to get us to a final in the first place.” Cullen himself can become the first person to win the competition back to back as both a player and a coach. Sarries boss Mark McCall has established himself as one of the top coaches in the game due to his work at the London outfit. He has encouraged his players to be the ones who provide a match winning moment saying, “These games turn on small moments, it might be a magical moment. We’ve got to be ready to take advantage of those.”
NOT ALL ABOUT SEXTON AND FARRELL
It may be too simplistic to view the out half battle between Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell as the key but it is hard to reject the belief that the winner of that individual battle will be on the winning side. Both players are unquestionably world class, the winner of the personal battle will most likely be the one behind the dominant pack which is the real key to Saturdays game. Superiority at both the set piece and the breakdown reap huge rewards both in terms of territory and opportunities for points. Sexton or Farrell will undoubtedly get the headlines for whatever reward can be gained from the work of their packs as it will be up to those two to turn opportunity into points.
HEADS YOU WIN, TAILS YOU LOSE
Sarries have yet to experience a game this year where they are up against it in Europe, at points in this game they will be, how they deal with those moments of pressure will be vital. Leinster had an almighty scare against provincial rivals Ulster, they survived and will be better for it, if things are tight near the end they can call on that experience to help them through. Anything other than a one score game will come as a surprise with a draw a very real possibility. Both sides will have periods of dominance in the match, emerging from those with points will be essential as the chances of both sides not being at the clinical best are very slim. When picking a winner flicking a coin will give you your best chance. For the neutral it will be a great watch, for supporters of either side it will be an evening of anxiety which they will hope to be followed by a night of triumphant celebration in the North East.
Leinster: R Kearney; Larmour, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe; Sexton (capt), McGrath; Healy, Cronin, Furlong, Toner, Ryan, Fardy, O’Brien, Conan.
Replacements: Tracy, J McGrath, Bent, Ruddock, Deegan, O’Sullivan, R Byrne, O’Loughlin.
Saracens: Goode; Williams, Lozowski, Barritt (c), Maitland; Farrell, Spencer; M Vunipola, George, Lamositele, Skelton, Kruis, Itoje, Wray, B Vunipola.
Replacements: Gray, Barrington, Koch, Isiekwe, Burger, Wigglesworth, Tompkins, Strettle.
Written by Stefan Hamilton