DONAL LENIHAN: Sarries’ Lions have proved their mettle to Gatland. Can Munster and Leinster Lions do likewise?

McCall watches Farrell in action for Saracens. McCall is the silent assassin who pulls the strings behind a rugby machine that continues to evolve

The lack of an Irish presence may have dampened our enthusiasm in the buildup to the Champions Cup final but, in the end, worthy finalists Saracens and Clermont Auvergne produced a captivating spectacle.

Both sides delivered a performance worthy of the decider and, in doing so, reminded us there was no shame in Munster or Leinster losing out at the penultimate stage. 

Not for the first time in this tournament, Clermont were left crestfallen at the final whistle. 

At least this time there was some consolation in that their defeat could not be attributed to any mental fragility or a failure to deliver on the day. Clermont gave it their best shot but, like Munster in the semi-final, were defeated by a superior force.

A wonderful Clermont second-half try from deep in their own half, featuring sumptuous handling from the entire back row, was finished off expertly by Nick Abendanon at a time when it looked that the game might be slipping away from them. 

Saracens were pushed all the way and the outcome was still in doubt until full back Alex Goode registered his side’s third try with only six minutes left.

Back-to-back champions, Saracens have continuously evolved over the last few seasons and are a far more balanced side than when they first appeared in the knockout phase of European rugby.

Ulster man Mark McCall is the silent assassin who pulls the strings behind a rugby machine that continues to evolve.

Yes, the club has massive financial backing that regularly absorbs annual losses in excess of £5m but, in comparison to several other generously financed clubs spread around England and France, they continuously deliver in the most pressurised of environments.

In contrast to the Toulon side that achieved great things in Europe on the back of comic mogul Mourad Boudjellal’s millions and his ability to attract some of the biggest names in the game to the south of France, both Clermont and Saracens contribute hugely to their national set-ups.

Clermont’s starting side on Saturday featured 10 French internationals with Saracens matching that number of capped Englishmen. Toulon rarely started with more than three French players and, despite their years of continued success on the domestic and European front, contributed little or nothing to the French team.

Perhaps McCall’s greatest achievement is in developing the tight, parochial and family values that characterise teams like Leinster, Munster and Leicester Tigers despite the fact that Saracens don’t represent any geographical or historic location.

There are many other examples in sport where money fails to buy success and where overpaid superstars fail to buy into the values of the club and their fellow players. Saracens score on all those fronts, with their multiple internationals giving everything to the cause.

With six tourists in the Lions squad heading to New Zealand, those characteristics will add appreciably to what Warren Gatland hopes to achieve from the outset of the tour. 

It will help the Lions cause that the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George, and Owen Farrell look in great shape and on top of their game. 

They know how to win and that is exactly the type of mindset the Lions will need to carry into the series.

Saturday’s final proved a fitting finale to a rollercoaster of a tournament, one that revived hopes that an Irish success isn’t that far away. 

Taking the calamitous nature of their opening 15 minutes against Clermont into account, Leinster will feel they could have made it all the way to Murrayfield this season. That will give them something positive to build on.

Likewise there was no shame in Munster’s failure to deal with the overall quality of Saracens in their semi-final and, with a few additions and tweaks to their attacking strategy, have the capacity to make the knockout phase of European competition with the regularity that was taken for granted for over a decade.

One of the key factors in achieving that is a top seeding for next season’s Champions Cup draw. Making the Guinness Pro 12 final will prove a major help in that. 

After witnessing the best that the French Top 14 and Aviva Premiership have to offer in Edinburgh last weekend, the focus now shifts to their Irish and Welsh counterparts in this weekend’s PRO12 semis.

Leinster and Munster start in pole positions given that no side to date has ever lost a home semi in this tournament. Yet Scarlets, in particular, and Ospreys won’t be in any way discommoded by their respective visits to the RDS and Thomond Park. 

With 14 Lions tourists spread across the four sides, Gatland will also be an interested spectator as he evaluates the contribution of his Lions to their respective sides and if they can impose themselves to the same extent that the Saracens sextet managed last weekend when the battle lines were drawn.

Everything points to an all-Ireland decider at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday week — the bookies have both Irish sides favourites with an 11 point spread — but the Welsh outfits will fancy their chances.

Leinster would have anticipated entertaining Ospreys as table toppers but their defeat to Ulster last time out has pitted them against a Scarlets side they hammered 45-9 at the RDS as recently as last March. 

Yet that game aside, Scarlets have been playing some outstanding rugby and their all action, ball in hand style, makes this a fascinating spectacle.

Their back line is really exciting but much will depend on how their front five compete. 

A generous splattering of Welsh internationals in that sector, despite the absence of Jake Ball, coupled with a back row containing Scotland captain John Barclay, suggests that this contest will be tighter that anticipated.

The fact the Ospreys were defeated 40-17 by the Scarlets 10 days ago suggests Munster has ended up with the better draw. Ospreys have been disappointing of late and, on current form, another home win looks on the cards here.

I expect Munster will have learned a lot from that semi-final with Saracens and will put those lessons to good effect in this clash. 

There is history between these two sides however and Ospreys, with Alun Wyn Jones back in the mix, have always made life difficult for Munster.

What is clear is that this Munster squad is ravenous for silverware given very few of the existing squad were on board for the last trophy celebration — the 2011 Magners League final win over Leinster. Incredibly only Keith Earls, Conor Murray, and Donnacha Ryan survive from Munster’s starting XV that day. 

Is it any wonder the current crop are hungry for success? With everything that has happened this season, it would be an incredible achievement for Munster to emulate that success.

A season-ending finale, featuring Ireland’s greatest rivals going head-to-head at Irish rugby headquarters for domestic honours, would really be something to savour. 

Despite the presence of the best Welsh rugby has to offer, I expect that will be the case.


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