Leinster 10 Saracens 20
Sean McMahon reports from St James’ Park, Newcastle.
Just like it was three weeks ago at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, a try from Billy Vunipola broke the hearts of Irish rugby supporters.
Vunipola showed incredible strength and dexterity to stretch out his arm and ground the ball under the posts in the second half of a superb and absorbing Heineken Champions Cup final at the glorious St James Park in Newcastle.
That converted try put 10 points between the teams with just over 10 minutes remaining and the gap proved too large to bridge as Saracens, as they so often do, dominated territory in the closing moments of the game.
In truth, Leinster showed some excellent passages of play throughout but you always got the sense that Mark McCall’s side were holding something in reserve and they showed that in the second-half.
Leinster will be disappointed with how they closed out the first half of this encounter. With a seven-point lead, the clock had ticked past 40 minutes yet the ball was kept in play and surrendered to Saracens. They showed their ruthlessness by punishing this mistake with a Sean Maitland try to level the match going into the halftime break.
As expected, the game began at a breathless pace as both sides thundered into tackles, looking to lay down an early physical marker in what was a Test match in everything but name. Saracens’ famed line speed has suffocated opponents this season but referee Jerome Garces laid down an early marker himself when he penalised Brad Barritt for encroaching offside during a defensive lineout setpiece.
With a strong breeze blowing across the St James Park surface, Johnny Sexton took his time eyeing up the kick before dispatching the opportunity with relative ease to give his side an early 3-0 lead after three minutes.
Both sides were attempting to outdo each other in the physicality stakes as Leinster pushed the Saracens pack off their own ball in a remarkable display of strength.
Any time Saracens had the ball, they looked dangerous but they were thwarted by some excellent individuals efforts any time they looked like they were about to break through.
First, there was a Robbie Henshaw rip on Alex Lozowski when the Saracens centre looked to counter-attack, before Luke McGrath produced an excellent tackle on Alex Goode who looked certain to burst through a gap during a strike play off a lineout setpiece.
Both teams were searching desperately for the first real hammer blow. Some superb play from Lozowski brought play up to the Leinster 22 but eventually, Barritt was penalised for an illegal clearout which gave Leinster an opportunity to clear.
Leinster then went through numerous phases in the Saracens half until Billy Vunipola came up with a superb turnover which gave his side an opportunity to get down the other end of the field. It was back and forth.
The pressure finally told in the final 10 minutes of the first half as both sides were guilty of some pretty big errors.
A loose kick from Owen Farrell allowed Leinster to produce their most dangerous attacking sequence of the game so far.
Farrell’s kick found James Lowe on the left wing as the Kiwi danced his way up the touchline before offloading to get his side on the front foot.
Leinster kept the ball and went through the phases until they sent it wide to Rob Kearney on the near touchline. The experienced fullback stepped back inside off his right foot and accelerated through a would-be tackle. He was brought down just short of the line as Leinster searched for the elusive opening try.
However, they were unable to break through the red wall at that moment as Maro Itoje was sent to the sin bin for giving away two penalties close to his own line.
With Saracens down a man, Leinster opted for the scrum and after playing through a few phases, Tadhg Furlong, on his 100th appearance for Leinster, barged over from close range to get the first try of the game. Sexton converted t give Leinster a 10-0 lead with eight minutes of the first half remaining.
Up until this point, Leinster had dealt with everything that their opponents had thrown at them so it was surprising that they surrendered their lead in such a short space of time.
First, Alex Lozowski lined up a huge hit on Jack Conan and this was swiftly followed by a bone-cruncher from George Kruis on Johnny Sexton. This huge hit gave Vincent Koch an opportunity to swoop in and win a turnover.
Farrell kicked the points from the tee to get his side off the mark but Leinster will be really disappointed at what happened next.
With Leinster in possession and the match clock ticked past 40 minutes, everyone in the stadium expected Luke McGrath to kick the ball out but instead, he box-kicked ahead.
This gave Saracens possession and they soon won a penalty which they kicked downfield. From the resulting lineout, they went through the phases and brought play to within inches of the Leinster line. With the Leinster defence narrow as they attempted to defend the fringes, the ball was sent wide to Farrell who produced a sublime tip-on pass to Sean Maitland which provided the winger with time and space to ground the ball in the corner. Farrell produced a superb touchline conversion to level the game at the break.
Two foolish penalties were given away by Saracens at the beginning of the second half but they got away with it as Leinster knocked on just a few metres out from the Saracens line.
A few moments later, the eastern province almost scored their second try of the game but when they looked to make use of a massive overlap, Williams shot out to produce a massive hit on Jordan Larmour. Williams then questionably won the turnover despite the replays suggesting he wasn’t supporting his own body weight.
That proved to be a huge moment in the game as Saracens went up through the gears in the next 10 minute. This ultimately led to Saracens taking the lead through a Farrell penalty but it came at a price as Fardy was penalised in the build-up which saw him go to the bin for cynical play just like Itoje in the first half.
In fact, Itoje was penalised for making contact with Rob Kearney in the air after the restart and this gave Leinster an opportunity to put together an attack which was eventually foiled by Billy Vunipola who produced a vital intercept to win back possession.
Leinster would rue that error as Saracens held onto the ball until they scored their second try of the game on 67 minutes. A series of strong scrums had Leinster backpedalling but upon another reset, Billy Vunipola carried hard and although he was stopped before the line, he showed incredible strength and dexterity to stretch out and ground the ball beneath the posts.
Farrell’s conversion was a formality as Saracens went into a 10-point lead with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Leinster tried desperately in the final minutes to conjure something out of nothing but they were foiled by a mean Saracens defence who were determined to secure their third Heineken Champions Cup.
Leinster: Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Scott Fardy, Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan.
Replacements: James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Michael Bent, Rhys Ruddock, Max Deegan, Hugh O’Sullivan, Ross Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin.
Saracens: Alex Goode, Sean Maitland, Alex Lozowski, Brad Barritt (C), Liam Williams, Owen Farrell, Ben Spencer, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Titi Lamositele, Will Skelton, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Joe Gray, Richard Barrington, Vincent Koch, Nick Isiekwe, Schalk Burger, Richard Wigglesworth, Nick Tompkins, David Strettle.