After a scarcely believable few nights of footballing drama, Europe’s two best rugby teams are this evening faced with the unenviable task of delivering a Heineken Champions Cup final to rival the beautiful game’s capacity to exhilarate.
That may seem a harsh target to set Leinster and Saracens but in front of a sell-out, 51,000 attendance at St James’ Park, one of English football’s great arenas, these two European greats have the personnel to continue the thrills and spectacle to take their sport to another level tonight.
This final brings together the two most recent champions, Leinster defending the title won for a record-equalling fourth time last year in Bilbao against the 2016 and 2017 winners, both teams packed with trophy-winning, big match experience and a hunger for more silverware.
There is a lot to relish about the prospect of these two sides going head-to-head in a European decider and even an arm-wrestle of this calibre will be something to savour, such is the power, efficiency and ability to play to Test match levels of high intensity possessed by both protagonists.
What was clear from both camps as they finished up their preparations with captain’s run training sessions at St James’ Park yesterday, is that both also possess a singular focus to get the job this evening.
For Saracens there is the urgency to return to the top of the pile after their bid for three-in-a-row titles was halted by Leinster at the quarter-final stage in Dublin last season, a defeat that has been a huge motivation for success this time around.
That has been evident in an unbeaten campaign with a perfect pool phase that saw off Glasgow Warriors, Cardiff Blues and Lyon in short order, followed by the clinical dismantling in the knockout stages of the unfortunate Glaswegians once more and then Munster.
It has given the sense that Mark McCall’s side has never been in better shape, a point which captain Brad Barritt did little to discourage.
“Probably not. There’s a certainly good sense in the team we’ve had good momentum from the last year,” Barritt said.
“We’ve learned a lot from the defeat to Leinster. The team are in great condition, we had good performances in the quarter-final and the semi-final but we’re aware we need to step it up another level against this Leinster team tomorrow. We’re more than ready for it.”
Saracens will undoubtedly need to find another gear in Newcastle if they are to reclaim the European crown in their fourth final appearance in seven years, for though the defeats of Glasgow and Munster were majestic, Leinster will offer a lot more in the way of both resistance and attacking threat.
Like Saracens, Leo Cullen’s side has been there and done that, some of them four times over, in fact. Captain Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Devin Toner have played a part in every Heineken Champions Cup success while head coach Cullen lifted the trophy three times and coached the fourth victory over Racing 92 in Bilbao 12 months ago.
Now they have a chance to make history and move past fellow European aristocrats Toulouse by landing a fifth title but Cullen is wary of making that the primary objective for his players.
“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,” Cullen said yesterday.
“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 1-23.
“You know, even with a couple of (Saracens) guys dropping out they have so much quality to bring in. So it’s trying to understand what we’re going to face, what it’s going to be like for us, what type of plan do we need to have to try and unlock what their strengths are. It’s trying to put it all together.
A game to savour then, but also one extremely difficult to call for these are two teams who appear to be improving with every round of this season’s competition, Leinster equally as impressive as Saracens were in the semis when they defeated Toulouse 30-12 at the Aviva.
There are mouthwatering match-ups throughout the line-ups from Tadhg Furlong’s front-row battle with Mako Vunipola to Rob Kearney’s aerial duels with Alex Goode via Johnny Sexton’s head to head with fellow Lions fly-half Owen Farrell.
If Saracens do have an edge it may be in the strength of their bench where the likes of Springboks forwards Vincent Koch and Schalk Burger and England backline veterans, Richard Wigglesworth and David Strettle have the smarts and experience to see out a game if their starting XV manages to find some daylight between them and Leinster going into the final 15 minutes.
Koch’s presence as Saracens’ tighthead replacement has seen Cullen counter with the inclusion of Jack McGrath as loosehead cover, matching Test-match experience and bulk at scrum time where the English side found plenty of profit late on against Munster.
And where Sarries have Wigglesworth at scrum-half, Leinster turn to Ireland Under-20s number nine Hugh O’Sullivan, an undoubted talent but with just eight minutes of European rugby to his name as back-up to Luke McGrath in the absence of Jamison Gibson-Park.
Leinster will need O’Sullivan to rise to the occasion and the task if they are to become Champions Cup history boys.