Leinster defeat casts a shadow on all of PRO14

Leinster defeat casts a shadow on all of PRO14

CRESTFALLEN: Leinster players after their defeat by Saracens in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium. While Leinster blitzed all their rivals in the PRO14, the gap in Europe was exposed by Saracens. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Let the head-scratching begin, and not just in Leinster. The Guinness PRO14 champions will take no comfort in Saracens being toasted for producing their finest European performance in the wake of this 25-17 quarter-final victory as they survey the wreckage of an unbeaten season dashed on the rocks. Neither should their domestic rivals.

For as good as Saracens were at Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon to first blow the Heineken Champions Cup favourites away in a dominant first-half display and then have the resilience to weather a storm of their own during a spirited second-half fightback, Leinster know they had so much more to give in pursuit of a second league and European double in three seasons.

Leo Cullen spoke of his side being spooked by the team that had delivered a similarly devastating yet somehow different winning performance in last season’s Champions Cup final, some 15 months ago. He had seen Leinster knock-on in receipt of the kick-off and concede ground to the English side for the 40 minutes that followed as Saracens exerted scrum superiority and built a 22-3 lead by half-time that would prove too much for the four-time kings of Europe to reel in.

Revenge should have been sweet with Saracens seemingly in disarray after having relegation from the Premiership imposed on them for salary-cap breaches at home and seeing 16 players leave the club as a result.

Leinster on the other hand had not lost a game since that horrible experience at St James’ Park and their 25th consecutive win since that day on Tyneside allowed them to retain the PRO14 trophy. Seven days on from that final victory over Ulster, and there had only looked one winner but Saracens had other ideas.

In the wake of their domestic shame, European glory has become their sole quest, their final shot across the bows before disappearing into the English Championship and they were not in the mood to let Leinster’s ambitions supercede their own.

The absence of a crowd only amplified the energy McCall’s side manages to generate both on-field and from the sidelines. There was plenty of it in Dublin on Saturday as Saracens’ scrum powered its way to penalty after penalty, leaving Leinster powerless to fire a shot other than the three points kicked by captain Sexton six minutes in to cancel out Alex Goode’s third-minute penalty that had stemmed from that initial knock-on off the chest of Jack Conan.

The pressure Leinster were under in the first half produced mistakes and those errors - of execution, decision-making and discipline - allowed Goode, a more than able deputy for the watching but suspended Owen Farrell, to open up a handsome interval lead, including a majestic try on 37 minutes, with help from two monster Elliot Daly penalties.

Leinster are no pushovers but their quality only emerged after half-time, tries from Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour, remarkably his first try in blue since December 2018, giving hope of a comeback equal only to their half-time resurrection against Northampton in the 2011 final.

The Saints had no answer that day in Cardiff but Saracens had so much more in their locker on Saturday and with Leinster closing the gap to 22-17 as the clock moved into the final quarter, McCall’s men dug deep, reinforced their defensive line and forced the mistakes that allowed their scrum to reassert authority with two late penalties conceded by a shellshocked, harrassed home pack. Saracens had not needed to trouble the scoreboard but Goode’s late three-pointer was enough to end Leinster hopes once and for all, much to Cullen’s frustration.

“We got shocked by where we were, and a little bit spooked and you go into your shells, but that’s kind of a consequence of that three, six, nine, 12, 15 and you’re suddenly chasing the game,” the Leinster boss said, adding: “Saracens score and we’re 22-3 down at half-time.

“We’re frustrated because we got back to 22-17 but then we don’t build enough pressure because a couple of times we forced things in contact, when we’re just trying too hard rather than having that little bit more patience in the game.

“But Saracens are a very experienced, very, very powerful team, so you need to get lots right on the day. Unfortunately, overall, we didn’t get enough right. We planned to get it right but…” 

What a sobering thought for the rest of the PRO14 as the best version of the many line-ups that have conquered them all since 2018 was so utterly outplayed in that awesome first-half from Saracens.

If there was any pleasure taken by Leinster’s rivals closer to home in seeing them dismantled in the same manner and areas that Cullen’s players had done to them for the past three seasons, it was gravely misplaced. 

That Leinster were 18 points better than their nearest rivals during the 15-game season and conceded just eight points in the knockout stages of the PRO14 en route to the title, yet are still having to go back to the drawing board to work out what to do better in Europe next time around, should negate any delight in such misfortune.

In the afterglow of victory, McCall generously provided the template for beating Leinster.

"I wouldn't want to take too much credit for finding weaknesses in the Leinster team, there are not too many glaring weaknesses, to be honest,” he respectfully began.

"What we did talk about was trying to put them into some positions that they're not normally accustomed to being in. Trying to harass them in the back-field as much as we could, force them to do things they ordinarily wouldn't want to do 20 or 30 metres from their own goal-line.

"We just managed to put them under enough pressure for that first 40 minutes, in particular, to make them make mistakes and give us some penalties. Then we scored a good try from a set-piece. The players went out there and they did it, they were so engaged and had so much energy that they were able to harass them and put them under some pressure."

Of course, knowing how to beat Leinster and having the talent, power, and resilience to execute the plan is quite another matter.

L EINSTER: J Larmour; H Keenan, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (R O’Loughlin, 61- HIA), J Lowe; J Sexton (R Byrne, 65), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park, 61); C Healy (E Byrne, 57), S Cronin (R Kelleher, 42), A Porter (M Bent, 73); D Toner (R Baird, 42), J Ryan; C Doris, W Connors (J van der Flier, 52), J Conan.

SARACENS: E Daly; A Lewington, D Taylor, B Barritt - captain (D Morris, 80), S Maitland; A Goode (Manu Vunipola, 80), R Wigglesworth (A Davies, 69); Mako Vunipola (R Barrington, 69), J George, V Koch (A Clarey, 80); M Itoje, T Swinson (C Hunter-Hill, 64); M Rhodes (C Clark, 73), J Wray (T Woolstencroft, 80), B Vunipola.

Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)

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