Leinster v Saracens
Heineken Champions Cup Final
St. James Park, Newcastle @5pm, Saturday 11th May 2019
It’s not always the case that in cup competitions in any sport that the two best sides met in the final. However on this occasion that cannot be said as Leinster and Saracens are undoubtedly the best two sides in the Champions Cup, They have dominated this trophy for the last three seasons, but it’s the first occasion that they’ve met each other on the final day.
Their most recent meeting came in last years quarter-final at the Aviva when Leinster ended Saracens reign as champions when Leo’s lions ran out 30-19 winners. Tries at the start of each half from Garry Ringrose and Dan Leavy were to prove pivotal in that clash as Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell matched each other kick for kick off the tee and Marcelo Bosch landed a 50m penalty that sailed over with distance to spare. Isa Nacewa’s try gave Leinster breathing space and a Saracens mauled try off a 5-meter line out was to prove a mere consolation.
That clash was physical and brutal and played at an unyielding tempo. It gives us an idea of what to expect tomorrow. This time, however, it’s the main event rather than a quarter-final and given the occasion, the intensity may be even greater. It’s a fantastic prospect in store for us at teatime tomorrow.
Saracens stand in the way of back to back Champions Cup wins for a second time for Leinster. A win on Saturday would also see Leo Cullen’s side stand alone on top of the trophy role of honour on five victories ahead of their vanquished semi-final opponents, Toulouse, on four titles. However, a win for Saracens would see the English side join them on four Champions Cup wins.
Another interesting statistic is that a win for Leinster would see Irish sides join English and French sides on a combined total of Eight wins – currently Irish sides have claimed the crown on seven occasions. Leinster in 2009,2011,2012 & 2018, Munster 2006 & 2008 & Ulster 1999.
There are numerous links between the two clubs, Five players on each side toured together with the Lions to New Zealand two years ago. Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Owen Farell were the Saracens contingent – Billy Vunipola having withdrawn due to injury prior to the tour. While Leinster contributed Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw to that tour. Stuart Lancaster will be familiar with many of the Saracens squad having capped them during his tenure as English coach and of course Andy Farrell’s son Owen is the pivot of the Saracens side.
Leinster’s intimate knowledge of their opposition is unlikely to make the challenge any less daunting, but at least they’ll be aware that only their best will be good enough to claim the crown.
Leinster boss Leo Cullen has named an unchanged side from the one that overcame Toulouse in the semi-final. Seán Cronin, the tournaments joint-top try scorer on six alongside fellow Irish international Jacob Stockdale, was a slight doubt in the build-up to the game due to a calf strain, however, he has been passed fit to start. Seán O’Brien makes his last start for Leinster before moving to London Irish and Scott Fardy starts at no.6 in a reprise of his semi-final role. James Lowe starts on the left wing after missing out on last years win in Bilbao, meaning that there is no place in the matchday 23 for Jamison Gibson-Park with youngster Hugh O’Sullivan providing cover for Luke McGrath on the bench.
Cian Healy and Johnny Sexton started in the 2009 final win over Leicester Tigers in a side captained by current boss Leo Cullen and Devin Toner, Seán O’Brien and Rob Kearney were all on the bench that day and they will be hoping to add a fifth medal to their collection.
For Saracens, Mako Vunipola was a doubt and has also been passed fit to start. Maro Itoje moves from his prefered second-row spot to facilitate the inclusion of former Australian international Will Skelton, who is their only starter retained from last weeks 38-7 win over Exeter Chiefs, Michael Rodes is the player to make way. However, thirteen of this side faced Munster in the semi-final win in Coventry. The other change sees Sean Maitland get the nod for the no.14 jersey ahead of David Strettle.