Champion Cup: Sarries the itch that Leinster coach Leo Cullen must scratch

'It still feels like we're chasing them now because, after winning the quarter-final here a couple of years ago, to lose in Newcastle last season was hugely disappointing for our group'
Champion Cup: Sarries the itch that Leinster coach Leo Cullen must scratch

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen ahead of the Heineken Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and Saracens at St James' Park last year. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Such is the nature of sports and the people who partake in it at an elite level that it is disappointment rather than satisfaction that lingers longest.

So for all the admiration that Leo Cullen and Leinster have generated for their 25-match winning run and the successful retention of their Guinness PRO14 title for the third season in a row, it is what happened 26 games ago that has remained the reference point throughout this 16-month period of remarkable consistency and superiority.

Never more so than with today’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final in mind and with the Covid-19 pandemic delaying its arrival by five and a half months, it has been in Leinster head coach Cullen’s mind for some considerable time.

This afternoon’s meeting behind closed doors at Aviva Stadium brings that sense of disappointment full circle as Leinster welcome Saracens, the side that delivered that most recent of defeats in May 2019 to succeed the Irish province as European champions.

Then the holders of the trophy and chasing a double Double of PRO14 and Champions Cup crowns, Leinster came up against a side they had outclassed in the previous season’s quarter-finals but who would prove a different prospect altogether to the pale imitation they had faced in Dublin 13 months earlier.

Not that you would have known it after 32 minutes or so with a Johnny Sexton conversion of Tadhg Furlong’s opening try sending the men in blue into a 10-0 lead. Furlong had already seen off Mako Vunipola at the set-piece and Mark McCall had yanked both his props on 29 minutes, just as Maro Itoje was entering the sin bin.

Yet Saracens, back to back Champions Cup winners prior to Leinster stealing their crown, did not fold and were level by half-time before their superior physicality and excellent linespeed stifled and suffocated in a one-sided second half as they pulled away to a 20-10 victory.

That would stick around in your memory banks if you had been on the receiving end of such a powerhouse performance and it has informed Cullen’s planning for the rematch ever since, through 25 consecutive victories culminating in Leinster’s PRO14 final victory seven days ago.

This may be a very different Saracens team that since Brad Barritt lifted the European trophy in Newcastle has been punished for salary-cap regulation breaches by a points deduction that makes their demotion from the English Premiership a formality. Seven of that final-winning team have either departed, been loaned to other clubs in anticipation of a season in the Championship or in the talismanic Owen Farrell’s case, suspended.

Yet this is a Saracens side that has also been more than the sum of its parts, as Cullen has been planning for, ever since that fateful day at St James’ Park and particularly during rugby’s long coronavirus shutdown from March to August.

Saracens celebrate with the trophy during the Champions Cup Final last year
Saracens celebrate with the trophy during the Champions Cup Final last year

"They're a well-coached team, well-drilled, they've had a lot of success and we were chasing them for a long time,” the Leinster boss said yesterday.

“It still feels like we're chasing them now because, after winning the quarter-final here a couple of years ago, to lose in Newcastle last season was hugely disappointing for our group.

"Ever since we've gone back to that game at various different stages to try to figure out, if we had our time again, what we'd do differently. Learning from that failure I suppose is the most important thing, to get better in the quest for the perfect performance.

"We still haven't got there, whether we ever will or not I'm not sure.”

While Leinster may not achieve perfection they may just have to settle for being better than Saracens. Their four-game run-in to the PRO14 title has been more exacting than Sarries’ mix and match approach to the resumption of their domestic league campaign having been stripped of a title chase and it should make Leinster more battle-hardened ahead of this quarter-final.

James Ryan is back from injury for another duel with his future Lions second-row partner Maro Itoje while in openside flanker Will Connors, Cullen may just have unearthed a chop-tackling solution to the perennial problem of how to stop the rampaging Billy Vunipola in his tracks.

This is no foregone conclusion though. Saracens will have arrived in Dublin to begin their bid to retain the only trophy available to them in this season of off-field shame and as Cullen pointed out, for all the personnel changes, Mark McCall’s team are brimming with big-game experience and capable of posing a bigger challenge than anything Leinster have faced in the PRO14 this season.

“The step up in intensity? I think there's always a big step to Europe. I need to be careful what I say here because we've had some unbelievably tough games in the last four weeks as well,” Cullen said.

“You don't want to play yourself into trouble against a team like Saracens because as we found out in the past, they're a hard team to chase.”

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