Donal Lenihan: Steely Saracens show money is not their only motivation

Leinster's defeat serves to highlight the shortcomings of the PRO14 - and also hits the IRFU in the pocket
Donal Lenihan: Steely Saracens show money is not their only motivation

Saracens' Alex Goode is tackled by Leinster's Robbie Henshaw during the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final  at the Aviva Stadium. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Sports psychologists will have a field day analysing this one. On one side, a team unbeaten in their last 25 games packed to the brim with seasoned internationals, playing at home — albeit in an empty stadium —  and with a depth of quality players that makes them the envy of all.

On the opposite side, a club that shared all those characteristics with, if anything, even greater playing resources with the capacity to cherrypick some of the best internationals stars from around the world but brought to its knees with a proven case of breaking the rules.

The image that Saracens bought success on the domestic and European stage has always been exaggerated, in my view, given the significant number of stars, including Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, and Mako Vunipola, they brought through their academy system. In any event, many of the top French clubs competing in Europe have budgets comparable with Saracens.

Then again, every sport needs a villain and the admission that Saracens had broken the domestic salary cap has seen them banished to the nether regions of English domestic rugby.

Seventeen players departed, some on a temporary basis, and those left behind have been tasked with securing immediate promotion back to the Gallagher Premiership next season. You wouldn’t dare bet against that outcome.

The only carrot left for the likes of Itoje, Farrell, Jamie George, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Elliot Daly, and veteran stalwarts Richard Wigglesworth and Brad Barrett this season is proving that their club is about far more than money. 

Their emotional attachment to the club and their understanding of what it has done for them cannot be measured solely by the size of a monthly pay cheque.

The only way to go and prove that was by beating a Leinster side, admired and envied by all across Europe, in their back garden.

Leinster must have appreciated in advance that this game was going to prove a major obstacle to their primary ambition of regaining the Champions Cup. The prospect of a semi-final and potentially the final being played at the Aviva Stadium should have served to energise them even more.

When Leinster made a mess of Alex Goode’s high hanging kick-off, the image of Malcolm O'Kelly making the exact same error in the opening sequence of the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster at the same venue came flooding back.

Leinster players following their side's defeat. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster players following their side's defeat. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

On this occasion, Devin Toner made the call but overreached, leading to Will Connors knocking on. First mini victory of the day went to Saracens with a scrum in the opposition 22. While Wigglesworth moved the ball wide for Barrett to crash up the middle, the visiting front five emerged from that first scrum engagement sensing they had a potential advantage in a key area.

A penalty and three points from Goode off a resultant breakdown infringement offered the proud holders the start they had been engineering for months.

Quite why Leinster were spooked by that is a bit of a mystery. They must have spoken in advance about the certainty Saracens would come charging out of the blocks at full tilt to ask the early questions.

As my former international colleague, Des Fitzgerald said to me one time:

The scrum is only important when you don’t have one.

Saturday’s contest proved that salient point once again. In the battle of the minds, nothing sows a seed of doubt in one forward unit or energises the other like the feeling you get from being able to smash the opposition scrum.

It’s a bit harsh to state that Leinster don’t have a scrum but, without the presence of their world-class tight head Tadhg Furlong against a front row trio with the combined experience and craft Saracens had on Saturday, there is always a danger you could be exposed.

Watching this game unfold, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with how things developed in the World Cup final between England and South Africa in Yokohama last year.

The similarities were uncanny. One side identifying early that, not only had they the upper hand but, crucially, they had the referee convinced of that crucial fact also.

It is also worth highlighting another key point from the scrum battle. I have been preaching for a long time that the number of substitutions allowed in rugby is doing a disservice to the game. So many teams are now opting for six forwards on their bench — a key tenet to South Africa’s World Cup success —  that having the capacity to change 75% of your starting pack means you can carry players weighing in at over 22 stone who only have an aerobic capacity for 30 minutes of heavy lifting.

The physical damage these players can inflict on a tiring opposition is huge.

I will come back to this another day but, it was highly instructive that, having seen 17 players depart their playing roster since February, Leinster carried a major advantage in the quality of player they were able to introduce off the bench. Surely that would have a big impact in the final quarter.

The Leinster team make their way onto the pitch in front of empty stands. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The Leinster team make their way onto the pitch in front of empty stands. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In normal circumstances it would but the fact that Saracens had amassed a 19-point buffer after Goode crashed over for a crucial try just before half-time proved too wide a margin for Leinster to close.

Of even more significance however, with comparative rookies on their bench at hooker and tight-head prop in Tom Woolstencroft and Alex Clarey, Mark McCall relied on a massive 80-minute shift from his Lions hooker George and Springbok tight-head Koch. In doing so, that duo rubbished the notion that front rows are unable to go the full distance any more.

That those two had Leinster’s replacement front row conceding penalties in the last 10 minutes says everything about what they were prepared to do for the cause. Bear in mind too that Leinster had closed the gap to five points on 63 minutes.

Yet the visitors front row still had sufficient gas left in the tank to engineer another scrum penalty with two minutes to go. When Goode extended Saracens lead to eight points with his fourth successful kick of the afternoon, Leinster’s goose was cooked.

I admit to holding a grudging admiration for Saracens. What they achieved last Saturday was extraordinary. Part of my fascination with them surrounds the incredible work McCall has done with them and the humility with which he always carries himself in victory or defeat.

I know him well from his playing days with Ulster and Ireland and am left scratching my head as to why his achievements have never attracted more attention from closer to home. Maybe they have but McCall now has a new project to sustain him in London for some time yet.

The question now is, having had Leinster in their sights for the last eight months, can Saracens topple a top-class Racing 92 side in Paris within seven days?

One significant factor in their favour is that they already have a reservoir of knowledge on the Parisians having played them twice in the pool stage of this seasons tournament.

In a year that promised so much for Leinster, winning a third successive Guinness PRO14 title will be of no consolation whatsoever. If anything, it only serves to highlight the shortcomings of that tournament.

The question Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster need to examine is why Leinster allowed themselves be spooked by Saracens to the degree that Cullen gracefully acknowledged after the game. Surely they knew what was coming?

The twin defeat of Leinster and Ulster, who looked way out of their depth against Toulouse on Sunday, will come as a further blow to the already beleaguered finance department of the IRFU.

They could have done with whatever additional prize money attaches to reaching the last four in Europe.

Ironically, Saracens proved in Dublin last weekend that there is more to building a successful side than just money.

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