Leinster’s bid for a record fifth European crown came up short at St James’ Park on Saturday as Saracens reclaimed the Heineken Champions Cup for their third title in four seasons.
Saracens had been denied a third title in a row last season when Leinster knocked them out at the quarter-final stage but they were not to be denied this time around as they completed a nine-game unbeaten run topped by this victory, sealed with tries from Sean Maitland and Billy Vunipola.
Leinster had taken a 10-0 lead in the first half thanks to a Tadhg Furlong try on 32 minutes, converted by captain Johnny Sexton, who had opened the scoring on three minutes. Yet an Owen Farrell penalty and Maitland’s converted try on the stroke of half-time tipped the balance of this pulsating encounter firmly in Saracens’ favour as they kept the Irish province pointless for 48 minutes thanks to their trademark, suffocating defence.
Leinster got the perfect start when referee Jerome Garces penalised Saracens for straying offside as they pushed the boundaries of the impressive linespeed. It effectively gave the defending champions a three-point start as Johnny Sexton slotted his first goal attempt off the tee in the third minute.
It was a game of breathless intensity and tempo on a par with any Test match but after the initial stages of to and fro, Leinster looked to have gained the upper hand and seemed set to go into the break with a healthy 10-0 lead as Tadhg Furlong capped off a dominant five-minute spell that had begun with an excellent linebreak from full-back Rob Kearney who advanced his side from halfway to the five-metre line.
The ensuing phases saw Saracens under immense pressure and defending with their lives but although they held firm it was not within the laws and Maro Itojewas sin-binned on 29 minutes for two offside offences.
That Itojewas left the field with his two props, Mako Vunipola and Tito Lamositele, both of them spent and replaced after less than half an hour, spoke volumes for the intense physicality of this contest and Leinster doubled down as Conan broke off the base of the scrum and two phases later Furlong was over. Sexton nailed the conversion and Leinster were 10-0 ahead with 32 minutes played.
Saracens are nothing if not resilient and a penalty from Owen Farrell opened their account a minute before the break. Still not done, they went back on the attack from the restart, winning a penalty inside the Leinster half and from the subsequent lineout inside the 22, sucking in defenders to their battering-ram effort before great hands through Alex Goode and Farrell found Maitland in the corner, the England fly-half slotting the touchline conversion to level the scores right on half-time .
Leinster opened the second half strongly but could not penetrate a thick red line of defence and Saracens slowly gathered a head of steam, aided by a yellow card to Leinster flanker Scott Fardy on 58 minutes that yielded the go-ahead penalty for Farrell after the English side had been denied a try by the TMO.
With a man advantage, Saracens went for the jugular and were camped in Leinster’s 22 for much of the sin-bin period, eventually breaching the line as the scrum took advantage of Fardy’s absence, Billy Vunipola striking off the base and heading for the posts, stretching for the touchdown in contact.
Farrell’s simple conversion made it 20-10 and Saracens were home and hosed with 12 minutes still to play, Leinster denied a shot at a comeback by the champions-elect’s excellent game management and consigned to first ever final defeat.
R Kearney; J Larmour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton - captain, L McGrath; C Healy (J McGrath, 62), S Cronin (J Tracy, 51), T Furlong (M Bent, 69); D Toner (M Deegan, 74), J Ryan; S Fardy, S O'Brien (R Ruddock, 62), J Conan.
H O’Sullivan, R Byrne, R O’Loughlin
A Goode; L Williams, A Lozowski, B Barritt - captain, S Maitland; O Farrell, B Spencer (R Wigglesworth, 55); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 29), J George, T Lamositele (V Koch, 29); W Skelton (N Isiekwe, 62), G Kruis; M Itoje, J Wray, B Vunipola (S Burger, 74).
J Gray, N Tompkins, D Strettle.
Jérome Garcès (France).