Donal Lenihan: Irish momentum grinds to a shuddering halt in Champions Cup

Donal Lenihan: Irish momentum grinds to a shuddering halt in Champions Cup

CLOSE QUARTÉRS: Leinster and Saracens forwards locked in battle for control of a maul in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium. Picture: Inpho/Dan Sheridan

For years before finally cracking what was required to succeed in Europe, Munster thrived on the underdog tag, playing with a chip on both shoulders over some grievance — manufactured or otherwise — and relying on their unbridled passion to see them over the line.

Strange then to see a side who have won three of the last four Heineken Champions Cups arrive at the Aviva Stadium choosing to play from the same deck. Saracens’ self-inflicted fall from grace over breaches of the Premiership salary cap resulted in them travelling to Dublin shorn 10 of the matchday squad that inflicted Leinster’s last defeat in the 2019 final in Newcastle.

The big imponderable surrounding Leinster entering this contest was that they hadn’t been challenged to any huge degree since their return to action. The one thing about Saracens you could take with certainty is they would harbour no inhibitions whatsoever about visiting Dublin, especially in an empty stadium, and would carry the fight to the home side from the off — which is exactly what they did.

In order to suck the oxygen from the visitors and dampen their enthusiasm, Leinster needed to boss the opening exchanges, control the tempo of the game and drive home the message that, lacking so many of their front line stars from previous campaigns, this game was a step too far for Saracens.

What transpired was exactly the opposite. When Leinster butchered the receipt of the kick-off, Saracens were offered a foothold in the hosts 22 which they immediately transferred into points on the board. In their pomp, Saracens stock-in-trade was an ability to control the territorial game and put the opposition under so much pressure on the gain line they are forced into error.

Leinster were bullied into conceding penalties and the metronomic boot of Alex Goode, supplemented by the long-distance accuracy of Elliot Daly, took full advantage. A return of 15 points between them from five penalties over the opening half-hour left Leinster reeling.

In addition, by making their presence felt from the opening scrums of the game, the Saracens front five immediately identified a point of difference and played on that for the entire 80 minutes. Andrew Porter has been accustomed to playing a finishing role to Tadhg Furlong for Leinster and Ireland in the biggest games. On this occasion, he was tasked with managing a world-class loosehead in Mako Vunipola from the outset and felt the heat. On the opposite side, the vastly experienced Cian Healy was also under pressure from Springbok World Cup winner Vincent Koch.

The one thing about French referees is they tend to identify early who has the better scrum and reward that superiority. Once Saracens knew that Pascal Gauzere had reached that point, they went for the jugular and, like South Africa against England in the 2019 World Cup final, used it as a penalty-generating machine.

Seven scrum penalties conceded over the course of the game presented Saracens with a platform from which they extracted the maximum return. Even then, trailing 3-15 after 30 minutes, a score of any description before the break would have made a massive difference for Johnny Sexton’s men.

At the very least, it was imperative that Leinster concede no more points before the half time whistle. Yet, inexplicably for such a well-oiled defensive machine, they leaked a somewhat soft try to Goode on the stroke of half time. Ultimately, that 19-point deficit put too much daylight between the sides for Leinster’s more impactful bench to reel in.

Goode’s impact was such that Owen Farrell, their inspirational captain, was barely missed. When it came to controlling the territorial battle from half-back, Saracens relied heavily on their 37-year-old scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth to lead the way.

The former England international took a leaf from Munster’s playbook by choosing to box kick with alarming regularity. The difference here, however, was the accuracy and hang time of his deliveries, coupled with a suffocating chase from their hard-working wingers Alex Lewington and Sean Maitland, left Jordon Larmour and James Lowe scrambling in the backfield.

The receiver was put under so much pressure in the aerial contest that it so often resulted in a knock-on and an attacking scrum. Given the feelgood factor surrounding the Saracens set-piece, that only served to energise them even further.

As expected from a side of Leinster’s quality, they did carry the fight to Saracens after the break, reducing them to just a three-point return in the second half, but a deficit of 19 points proved an insurmountable hurdle. Leinster’s lack of composure was remarkable with Leo Cullen conceding that his side were “a little bit spooked pretty much from the kick-off”.

From my vantage point that is exactly how it read. That was both surprising and disappointing from a side that had won 25 games on the bounce but only served to highlight once again how much of sport is played out in the head.

Unlike the majority of opponents Leinster face in the PRO14, Saracens, despite being down so many players who contributed to their multiple successes over the last number of years, still retained an unshakable belief that they could beat Leinster.

In the end that intangible element, coupled with a faultless game plan delivered on the back of a masterful performance from their front five for whom Itoje, Koch, and Vunipola were superb, proved too much for even this Leinster side to handle. Saracens had their number on all fronts and recorded a victory up there with their very best days in Europe.

A difficult weekend for the Irish provinces was completed on the back of a more predictable outcome from Ulster’s visit to Toulouse. Already on the back foot after their defeat in the PRO14 final the previous weekend, this quarter-final always appeared beyond them.

It was always going to be a challenging afternoon for Ulster without having to deal with 27C degree heat. It also helped the Toulouse cause that everyone in the 5,000 crowd appeared to have an instrument of some sort and created an atmosphere that has been sadly missing from most rugby venues since the return of competitive action.

Not that Toulouse needed it. They appeared to be buzzing from the off and an opening try from the electric Cheslin Kolbe after only three minutes looked ominous. An injury to out-half Billy Burns 12 minutes later must have left Dan McFarland rueing the decision to carry only two backs on the bench and leave Ian Madigan back in Belfast.

Asking diminutive full-back Michael Lowry to direct proceedings from No 10 was always going to be a difficult ask against opposition of this quality. With two of their principal ball carriers in Marcel Coetzee and Tom O’Toole already ruled out before kick-off Ulster just couldn’t cop a break.

Losing centre Stuart McCluskey in the second half, necessitating a shift to the left wing for scrum-half John Cooney left Ulster plugging too many holes. In difficult circumstances, they competed manfully but the gulf in class, even if Toulouse were far from their best, was too great and the outcome inevitable.

A deficit of 28 points at the end reflected a miserable afternoon.

All of a sudden, 13 months after it started, what has proved a very challenging and disruptive 2019/20 season for Irish rugby came to a shuddering halt.

Time to take stock.

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