Belfast Telegraph

Sensational Sexton key to Leinster chances of Euro glory

 

Hold on: Johnny Sexton catches the ball during the Leinster captain's run at St James' Park, Newcastle yesterday ahead of this evening's Champions Cup Final
Hold on: Johnny Sexton catches the ball during the Leinster captain's run at St James' Park, Newcastle yesterday ahead of this evening's Champions Cup Final

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

After the week that was in the world of football, European rugby arrives in the heartland of England's national game with a challenge on its hands to deliver something that can capture the imagination. It is quite an act to follow.

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St James' Park provides the backdrop for what is, on paper at least, a final for the ages. These two teams have a rich pedigree in this tournament as they arrive in Newcastle with almost all of their star attractions on display.

Notionally, moving the final beyond the traditional stadiums of rugby union is about growing the game, but that won't happen unless the spectacle is compelling.

Saracens are a team that tend not to do drama. They are an overwhelming force, a cold and calculated team packed with power-runners who apply pressure to their opponents and don't relent until they are dead. Then they issue a few kicks to make sure.

Leinster, however, are one of the few teams around who can live with their physicality and unpick their defence.

With their swashbuckling open game and array of attacking talents, they are the kind of team that can attract new followers to the sport. They'll only do it if they are allowed.

The Irish province will have the majority in the close-to-capacity crowd at the home of Newcastle United, while the recent controversy over Billy Vunipola means any remaining neutrals will probably swing their way too.

The English champions are hard to like, but they're even harder to play against. Their record of getting to finals is matched only by their capacity to win them. They are without doubt the toughest final opponents Leinster have faced.

Leo Cullen knows the territory; as captain he led the boys in blue in three finals and he returned as coach to guide them to a fourth star in Bilbao last season.

A fifth title would set the eastern province apart as the most successful club in the history of this competition.

The significance of a fifth star is not lost on the coach, even if he won't be dealing with it directly during the build-up.

"It's something that is there in the background I think, but it's not something that we've focused that much attention on really," the coach said.

"You've got to get ready for the intensity of the game, because we're playing a game against another team that has got to this stage, have been at this stage over the course of the last few seasons, have so much threat across 1 to 23.

"You know, even with a couple of guys dropping out they have so much quality to bring in.

"So it's trying to understand what we're actually going to face and deliver a performance.

"So it's trying to put it all together.

"Even if it's in the back of people's minds, everyone knows it's a great reward, but Saracens are in a very similar situation.

"So you try and focus more of our attention on actually the process of going about how you are going to perform well on the day.

"It's going to be an amazing occasion, two very, very good teams. It's a great stadium here as well, so it's all set really."

The low-key nature of yesterday's press conferences gives way to what will be a thundering battle on a pristine pitch this evening.

The forecast rain and tighter-than-normal pitch will make for a bruising encounter, with Ireland's Joe Schmidt and England's Eddie Jones likely to be watching through their fingers given so many of their World Cup front-liners will be in action.

While much of the focus this week has been on the encounter between these teams in last year's quarter-final, Ireland's Six Nations defeat to England is another reference point.

If Saracens can reach the physical pitch that the national team hit on that dank Dublin day in February, they'll be almost impossible to live with.

Leinster need to win their fair share of collisions or risk being run over.

Ulsterman Mark McCall's array of ball-carriers is breathtaking.

Their front-row are all excellent with ball in hand, their second-row is destructive and their back-row is bruising.

Behind the scrum, they have the threats and the structure to cause havoc with front-foot ball, while their excellent kicking game can bring them into it if things aren't going their way up front.

Leinster need to impose their own game as they did in the Aviva Stadium last season when their chop tackles felled the big guns and their wide approach stretched the English side.

Although McCall rejected the idea that his team are more comfortable as frontrunners, the Irish province know the importance of getting ahead and staying there.

The way Saracens play is all about pressure, and if they get the scoreboard on their side, they normally just pick their opponents off.

Discipline is key. Owen Farrell will happily build a score using his boot if given the chance, while their lineout maul is a dangerous weapon.

Leinster need to maintain their average of seven penalties conceded per match.

The scrum could be a window of opportunity for the champions, while their ability to adapt to referee Jerome Garces at the breakdown will be key.

Munster struggled to adapt to the French official's carte blanche approach to illegality at the ruck, but Leinster will back themselves to be smarter this evening.

They have leaders throughout the field, but it is their captain who holds the major influence.

Saracens repeatedly hit Johnny Sexton late in last year's encounter, while England unmercifully went after him in February, knowing how curbing his influence stops the side from flowing.

With Robbie Henshaw beside him, he'll have a bailout option, but Sexton's ability to link with Garry Ringrose will be crucial. If Leinster can get their outside centre on the ball with any regularity, they'll have a chance.

Both back-threes have game-breaking ability and it would be a shame to see Liam Williams and James Lowe squeezed to the margins, chasing kicks.

Leinster will be keen to get their brilliant winger into the game.

Rob Kearney brings a level of security to the back-field that Mike Haley couldn't for Munster and they will be ready to scrap for the ball on the deck if Saracens adopt a spoiling approach in the air.

The small in-goal areas may limit Farrell's capacity to find space and could drive up the amount of ball in hand, something that would normally suit Leinster who are one of the fittest teams on the go.

They are more lightly-raced than their opponents and they will back themselves to go through long phases of ball in hand, but their bench is lacking in firepower even if Rhys Ruddock offers a lot when introduced.

On his final European game in blue, Seán O'Brien's performance will be key. If he can produce anything close to his best, his team will be on to something. If he is quiet, they'll be in trouble.

All week, the bookies have been calling it a scratch game but yesterday the market moved slightly in the English side's favour.

These sides are evenly matched, with game-winners of international quality on either side and it will come down to which one performs on the day.

Saracens' power gives them a small edge, their bench an even bigger one, but Leinster will do everything they can to retain their title.

At the end of a week of sporting drama, this one is set up to deliver.

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