Could the Champions Cup final come down to just Sexton v Farrell?

Donal Lenihan on the players and performances that could shade today’s meeting of the European superpowers in Newcastle.

1. Greatest of rivalry fuelled by mutual respect

Lions tours are unique in so many ways. For a period of weeks you find yourself not only sharing a dressing room with some of your greatest rivals but practically living together when sharing a hotel room for weeks on end at the opposite end of the world.

Suffice to say, you get to know a lot more about the life and idiosyncrasies of an opponent that you spent so much time trading blows with in the past. 

Amazing how, at a reunion of the 1989 Lions squad back in 2014, the biggest embrace I received when arriving into the hotel bar came from Wade Dooley, Bob Norster and Paul Ackford, my fellow second rows on that tour of Australia. 25 years on, the respect and memories were still there, the international rivalry firmly cast aside.

In a contest as tight as today’s Heineken Cup final promises to be, the game could well come down to who from Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell is provided with the tools to exert the greater influence over the course of the 80 minutes. 

These two have been the greatest of rivals since the Lions tour of Australia in 2013. At that stage Farrell was very much the support act to Sexton who started all three tests.

They roomed together, practiced their kicking together, discussed tactics together - but there was a clear pecking order. 

By the 2017 edition in New Zealand, Farrell had become a more senior figure and the rivalry between the two intensified as the battle for the coveted No 10 test slot swung in favour of the English man, a fact confirmed by his selection over Sexton for the opening test.

History shows that in order to compete with New Zealand, both men had to be accommodated in the same back line and a week later Sexton was recalled to the pivotal role with Farrell moving to inside centre. The Lions won the second test to keep the series alive.

Remarkably, Sexton only plays his second game for Leinster in 2019 today. On his return against Toulouse, the masterful figure that was crowned world player of the year in 2018 was back for all to see after a challenging and disappointing Six Nations campaign.

By way of contrast Farrell was masterful in England’s dismissal of Ireland and France in that championship before losing the plot against Scotland in their final outing in a performance that left many questioning his temperament and suitability for the captaincy. Leinster will target him.

Both have a point to prove today as they seek to get the better of each other in the knowledge that, whoever emerges on top is likely to go home with a winners’ medal. T

hat is the pressure cooker they have become used to operating in. Either way, on the final whistle, they will share a handshake, maybe even a hug that will mean so much more when they reunite as Lions some time down the line.

2. Back row giants bowing out together

I’m not sure what Declan Kidney made of Sean O’Brien’s comments in the build up to today’s final when the Tullow colossus declared that he would have taken a quarter of the salary Kidney’s London Irish have agreed to pay him from next season onwards to stay at home and finish out his career with Leinster.

On and off the field, O’Brien has always been very direct. There is no sugarcoating with him. While it’s clear that the decision taken by Leinster and Ireland not to offer him new terms rankles, it will suit their cause today with O’Brien bursting to finish his European career in blue with a performance to make them doubt the wisdom of that decision.

Given the make up of a Saracens back row, led by the explosive Billy Vunipola, with the relocated Maro Itoje with Jackson Wray in support, O’Brien along with Jack Conan and Scott Fardy will have to be at their absolute best for this contest to remain competitive.

There is no question that, due primarily to a series of debilitating injuries, O’Brien is still searching for the form that made him such a hit on that Lions tour to New Zealand two years ago. His appearances for Leinster have been sporadic but the injury enforced absence of Dan Leavy and Josh Van Der Flier means Leinster need one more heroic stand from their talismanic open side.

When the need was greatest against Toulouse, O’Brien performed but, in truth, the Toulouse back row were well off the pace in Dublin and the challenge on the deck and in the race for turnovers today will be at a different level to that semi final. Leinster need O’Brien at his best.

It will be interesting to see if the paths of O’Brien and South African World Cup winner Schalk Burger cross in what also amounts to the Springboks’ final European appearance before his retirement at the end of the month.

No longer guaranteed a start in Saracens colours, Burger has been hugely influential when Mark McCall springs him from the bench in the final quarter. 

O’Brien may well have been called ashore by that stage, denying us one last face off between two of the greats of the professional era.

3. Mastery of the air will prove decisive

When Ronan O’Gara was in his prime, the punishing accuracy of his kicking game created nightmares for the opposition. 

Many a full back left Thomond Park broken, shattered men torn to shreds by the accuracy and hang time of the bombs that rained down from on high. Think of Gloucester’s Henry Paul, Saracens Mark Mapletoft and David Slemen with Harlequins.

Time has moved on, even in the six years since O’Gara hung up his boots. Nowadays, nobody in the back field is exempt with the wingers and the full back having to work in tandem to nullify the aerial bombardment. All three need to be rock solid.

Saracens turned the Munster back three inside out at the Ricoh Arena with Mike Haley having a difficult afternoon. Darran Sweetnam could have helped his cause a bit more by ‘escorting’ more cleverly - the modern term for making sure you obstruct the run of the chasing players without being caught by the referee. 

There’ll be plenty of that going on at St James’ Park today.

In Rob Kearney, Leinster have a highly experienced campaigner who has never been found wanting in that department. Such has been his command of the air in times past that teams simply stopped attempting to go down that route.

Teams kick to regain possession or, at the very least, to make those kicks contestable. Keith Earls was a huge loss to Haley in that respect in the semi-final and the overdue inclusion of Maori All Black winger James Lowe will be welcomed by Kearney. 

Renowned for his try scoring exploits, he is also extremely accomplished in his defensive aerial duties.

There is little to separate these sides today with many of the front line international stars sprinkled generously across the teams capable of cancelling the impact of their equally impressive opposite number.

Therefore the opportunity is there for some of the lesser lights to take centre stage in this contest. In Wray at open side, scrum half Ben Spencer and centre Alex Lozowski, Saracens have three capable operators who will have to step up against more decorated opponents.

Luke McGrath was outstanding in the win over Toulouse with the quality of his all-round game offering Sexton a licence to show the full range of his talents. 

Conan has been superb for Leinster all season and if he succeeds in curtailing the sizeable influence that Billy Vunipola will undoubtedly carry, Leinster might just squeeze it - but it’s going to be tight.

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