An absorbing Heineken Cup final that lived up to its billing in every way. The Leinster players must have woken up yesterday wondering what hit them.
The explosive power that Saracens brought to Saturday’s contest proved too much even for a side of Leinster’s quality to cope with, valiantly and all as they tried.
A near-capacity crowd of 51,930 was treated to an enthralling contest.
There hasn’t been much to set pulses racing in the north east of late. Rafa Benitez has managed to stave off the threat of Premier League relegation but the Newcastle Falcons weren’t so fortunate with Dean Richards’ charges slipping through the Premiership trap door last week, headed in the opposite direction to Declan Kidney’s London Irish.
Rugby is suffering around these parts but this final afforded rugby fans from near and far the chance to see the two best sides in Europe.
Scanning the team sheets in advance, suffering Falcons fans will have been left scratching their heads as to how their side was even competing in the same tournament.
The quality on offer across both match day squads was staggering. Incredibly both had 20 internationals, 19 Irish and a Wallaby for Leinster, 14 English, two Springboks and one each from Wales, Scotland, Australia, and the USA in Saracens colours.
When it came to British and Irish Lions, honours were evenly spread with seven a piece. Even then, it was two of Saracens lesser lights, centre Alex Lozowski — how is Eddie Jones ignoring his claims for England inclusion — and open side Jackson Wray who made major contributions to their cause.
This was a final where the unrelenting physical intensity topped anything witnessed in the recent Six Nations Championship. On the evidence of this encounter, the newly crowned European champions would probably win that tournament too. Saracens carried an all-suffocating, explosive level of power into this final that wore Leinster down as the contest played out.
Unlike Munster, Leinster never had to go through that horrible phase of having to lose a final to learn what it took to win one. Four Heineken-Champions Cup deciders, four gold stars.
With due respects to Leicester Tigers, Northampton Saints, Ulster, and Racing 92, the Saracens team facing Leinster on Saturday were in a different league to any of those opponents.
Despite that, Leinster are entitled to look back and wonder what might have been had their decision-making, especially after the clock turned red at the end of a pulsating opening half, been different.
Two minutes of complacency when Leinster lost focus and concentration, attempting to play off slow ball, undid 38 minutes of magnificent toil, hard labour and no shortage of class which had catapulted them into a 10-point lead.
Yet Saracens showed what a menacing beast they are by matching that return in just 90 seconds. Ten points up with two minutes to play on the stadium clock, somehow Leinster found themselves on level terms heading down the tunnel at the break.
In doing so, the half-time talk that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster had planned to deliver required instant revision. Having played superbly, asking questions of a brutish Saracens team that rarely find themselves on the back foot, Leinster had to start all over again from scratch.
Not easy, given the energy they had already expended.
For Saracens to respond in the manner they did, after a challenging period on the half hour mark when they not only lost Maro Itoje to the sin bin, but both starting props in Titi Lamositele and Lions wrecking ball Mako Vunipola to injury, was astonishing.
With a penalty on offer, it was a no brainer for skipper Johnny Sexton to opt for a scrum. Three phases later, Tadhg Furlong scored the all-important opening try, extending Leinster’s lead to 10 points. They were in the ascendancy.
Saracens are a side that like to build a score in the knowledge that when they hit the front, their ravenous defensive structure is almost impossible to crack. Leinster’s problem was they allowed themselves to be sucked into playing too much rugby at a time when they didn’t need to.
Saracens are brilliant at committing only one or two players to the ruck but still manage to slow the pace of the recycle. When Leinster unnecessarily attempted to play from one such phase, Sexton was emptied in the tackle by George Kruis and conceded a penalty that Owen Farrell was only too pleased to slot between the posts.
Given Leinster’s performance to that point, finishing the half only seven points in arrears would have been sufficient for Farrell’s men.
Crucially, Leinster had the opportunity to kill the half but failed to take it, Luke McGrath box kicking instead of finding touch.
With free possession, Saracens went on the offensive, won a penalty and scored off a lineout, Sean Maitland touching down unopposed. When Farrell landed a difficult conversion, the psychological gain was palpable as Saracens bounced off the pitch.
After playing out of their skins, Leinster were back to square one.
Even then, Leinster responded on the resumption, only to be denied by a brilliant tackle and subsequent turnover penalty by Welsh wizard Liam Williams. Leinster enjoyed one other gilt-edged chance but, Garry Ringrose made a poor decision when failing to feed a clear overlap out wide for what looked like a certain try.
That door never opened again.
Saracens’ famed wolf-pack defence, coupled with an ever-improving scrum and some ferocious direct running from inspirational captain Brad Barrett constantly drove them over the gain line.
Conversely, when Leinster had possession, they were brutally stopped in their tracks by the superior power and tackle technique that every Saracens player brought to the contact area.
Their suffocating line speed propelled them into the path of the Leinster attack to such a degree that Billy Vunipola alone was able to fashion three intercepts. The relentless nature of the sustained pressure they managed to exert, supplemented by the superior quality of their bench, meant something had to give.
When it did, in the form of a yellow card for the hard-working Scott Fardy, it was game up. Saracens registered 10 points in the 10 minutes the Australian was off the field. Leinster only managed a net four when Itoje was similarly interned in the first half.
The highly attritional nature of the contest also meant that Leinster were forced to go to their bench earlier than normal.
The quality available, weakened by the loss to other provinces of Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery since last season, with a further dilution to come when Jack McGrath leaves for Ulster, began to tell.
The Leinster scrum creaked badly when Furlong, Sean Cronin, and Cian Healy, who had carried superbly throughout, were called ashore. With Fardy in the bin, Leinster attempted to contain the Saracens scrum with only seven forwards.
Under severe pressure and in reverse mode, they were offered a reprieve when referee Jerome Garces ordered a reset. He could so easily have awarded a penalty try.
Once bitten, Leinster relocated Robbie Henshaw to the back row for the next scrum. In solving one problem, they created another.
Billy Vunipola immediately spotted Sexton looking to defend the inside channel without the support of Henshaw.
One more powerful drive saw the irrepressible No 8 touch down under the post with three Leinster defenders hanging out of him.
The Champions Cup was returning to Allianz Park for the third time in four seasons and there was nothing Sexton or anyone else could do to stop it.