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Neil Francis: Leinster won't be bullied by Sarries

Bit of previous: Leinster’s Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell of Saracens scuffle in last year’s quarter-final
Bit of previous: Leinster’s Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell of Saracens scuffle in last year’s quarter-final

By Neil Francis

I went to see Madame Zelda the other day to see if she could shine a light on who was going to win the Heineken Cup this Saturday. After two hours of pointless effort with the crystal ball she said: "It will be a game of fine margins," in a scary voice.

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"Would that be small margins or just fine margins?" I asked.

"Is there a difference?" she asked. "Huge," I replied.

"Fine margins," she said. "What else?" I asked.

"It is going to be a game…"

"A game of inches?" I interrupted. "How did you know?" asked Madame Z.

"I didn't," I replied. "I was just hoping the spirit world would come up with a better class of cliché than the living are serving up at the moment."

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We are not on talking terms at the moment but I will probably need her for the World Cup finals, the result on Saturday going a long way towards Ireland's rehabilitation from a shaky season.

I think Leinster are going to win on Saturday. One or two suppositions but Leinster, I think, have the better team, better coaching and are better geared to winning a match of this magnitude.

In hindsight, but admittedly not at the time, you felt that Leinster were always capable of producing a get out of jail card exactly when they needed it against Ulster.

The red hand were out on their feet in the last 15 and did well not to concede at least two tries. They died with their boots on and Ulster's supporters, although coming second, probably went home happier - Leinster had been in a dogfight and would face Toulouse under no illusions. If there was not a significant improvement and a change of mindset, Leinster would be leaving the competition at the semi-final stage.

Toulouse were on fire and unbeaten in all of their competitive matches except for the round five pool game against Leinster. A match where they were tonked.

I don't think Leinster got enough credit for that semi-final performance - a superbly intelligent display. If there was a quibble it would be that the scoreboard should have shown a bigger margin. Leinster would have won in Toulouse if the match had been played there too. They were primed.

And so to those suppositions. We expect Leinster to select a full strength side. We expect Leinster to be primed for this occasion. We assume that they do not ship points early on in the game. We also assume that Leinster keep all of their players on the pitch for the full 80. We assume, too, that there will be incremental improvements. If they do that, they will win.

I think at this stage that I am on the record on how I feel about Saracens. Quite apart from their financial and governance issues, they are cynical and a side who don't quite so much push the boundaries - more dance all over them. They have the firepower to get away with their cynical mode of play.

Of all the characteristics required for Saturday, discipline is the key. Discipline even when Jerome Garces shrugs his shoulders in the face of their blatant illegality.

Leinster manoeuvred through their pool and the knockout stages with untroubled efficiency. A tot on their penalty count tells you why they were always in a position of ascendancy.

In the eight games in the lead-up to the final, Leinster averaged seven penalty concessions a game. That figure would have Joe Schmidt purring. Out of a total of 56 penalties, they only hit double figures twice - 10 against Toulouse and surprisingly 10 away to Bath.

They managed only to concede a staggering three away to Wasps in the final game of the pool. It is, irrespective of the circumstances of that particular game, quite an achievement to only concede three penalties in 80 minutes of high intensity rugby. Their opponents in those eight games averaged between 11 and 12 penalties a game.

It is the classic champions' diet. Deal with pressure without conceding and apply pressure to your opponent until they have no option but to concede.

In total, Leinster conceded 35 fewer penalties than their opponents. Saracens are a different animal altogether. Unbeaten in all of their games, they posted big numbers while winning some of those matches, but their accumulated penalty count is very different to Leinster's.

Saracens totalled 73 penalties in their eight games - 17 more than Leinster - but that is not the point here. It is the 74 penalties conceded by opponents who could live with them without conceding penalties. In a game of attrition, it could come down to concession of penalties.

The 73 penalties conceded show also that Saracens will concede a penalty at the drop of a hat if it means they protect their line. Saracens lead the Premiership by a mile in yellows issued this season. They can afford to do this because there are very few teams who have the firepower to take advantage of them when they are a man down. Lose a man to Leinster for 10 minutes and that will be a different matter. How many acts of provocation before Garces goes to his pocket?

The mindset for Saracens when they concede penalties, either needfully or needlessly, is that they will be able to produce something to get back ahead because of their heavy duty pack or their highly skilled and intelligent half backs. They won't get the same latitude against Leinster. One area, though, that concerns me with Leinster is how they defend.

Munster will tell you that they were in distress when Saracens came at them in waves.

Leinster do have the tendency to employ a soft drift at times and if you let Saracens get 15-20 metres forward on you on the outside, then they will build aggressive powerful phases, and for Leinster, brilliant as they are defending close to their line, it is something you just don't want to be doing, keeping Saracens and the Vunipolas at bay close in for large portions of the game.

Stopping Saracens early on the gain line is the key. Leinster, too, can be exposed like Ireland were in February by England if they get caught defending too narrowly, and Owen Farrell's wide passing, especially to Alex Goode, can do some damage here.

Leinster's bench is also a worry. Is everyone on it Heineken Cup final standard?

It is - as Madame Zelda alluded to - quite tight, and if you take Saracens' top six most important and influential players in order of Farrell, Billy Vunipola, Goode, Maro Itoje, Ben Spencer and Liam Williams, they do match off with nothing to spare against Jonny Sexton, Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney, Scott Fardy, Luke McGrath and James Lowe.

The difference is at the other end of the scale where Leinster's midfield of Henshaw and Ringrose will have too much for Brad Barrett and Alex Lozowski, and the Leinster back row is immeasurably better than Jackson Wray and Michael Rhodes. Billy Vunipola is a class apart here, though. The difference at tighthead is also telling. A refreshed Tadhg Furlong will add hugely more than the brilliantly named Titi Lamositele.

The Leinster team dynamic can prevail against a side that needs to bully to win. Leinster won't be bullied. If Leinster play as well as they can, they will win - convincingly.

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