European rugby has got the final it wanted. Four-time winners and defending champions Leinster against 2016 and 2017 winners Saracens in Newcastle on May 11.
Leinster’s 30-12 victory over Toulouse at a sun-kissed Aviva Stadium on Sunday was just as dominant as Saracens’ 32-16 triumph over Munster on Saturday.
It’s the final fans have craved between the winners for the last three years and the two best teams in the competition.
Intriguing match-ups involving internationals of the highest quality will be on show at St James’ Park, the most interesting of which will be the latest duel between Lions stars Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton.
But, it doesn’t end there, there’s also Mako Vunipola vs Tadhg Furlong in front row, James Ryan vs Maro Itoje at second row, Jack Conan vs Billy Vunipola in the back row and James Lowe vs Liam Williams out wide. Enough to keep any rugby enthusiast entertained for 80 minutes.
Having seen off Toulouse in Dublin, Leinster will be seeking to become the first team to win five Champions Cup titles, while Saracens will be bidding for their third crown in four years.
Leinster were simply too good for their French opponents, beating their off-loading game at source and dominating them aerially. With Sean O’Brien, Devin Toner and Sexton showing sterling form, the reigning champions will not want to relinquish their title too meekly.
Sarries meanwhile have been the stand-out team this year, winning their six pool matches with relative ease and then looking flawless against Glasgow and Munster in the knock-out stages.
Their aerial dominance set the template early on against Munster and they came through that contest relatively unscathed – winning by 16 points. Vunipola may milk the headlines for his try and general involvement, but Jamie George, Itoje and Farrell were also outstanding.
To win in Newcastle will require more class from either side. Leinster may not have scaled the same heights as 2018, but have only lost one game in all competitions this calendar year – against Glasgow two weeks ago – and have comfortably qualified for the PRO14 play-offs.
Both finalists are consistent, can combine power, accuracy and skill with composed minds, and it will undoubtedly take moments of magic to force a breakthrough against their titanic defensive qualities.
It will be a different contest to 12 months ago when Saracens came to Dublin for their quarter-final clash against Leinster and failed to perform in the second half after holding the bulk of possession and territory in the opening 40 minutes.
They targeted Sexton in the opening half, with George Kruis, Richard Wigglesworth and Itoje all putting in crunching hits to derail his composure on the ball.
But small moments win games and Leinster’s ferocity, power and huge defensive efforts helped them secure a 30-19 win and advance to the decider against Racing 92.
Unfortunately, this time around, the totemic Dan Leavy will be sidelined with a complex knee injury. The Ireland flanker was the star of the show in Leinster’s last win over Saracens and his absence will be sorely missed.
But his loss presents O’Brien with another opportunity to sparkle, the Carlow man is back to his best against Toulouse after a number of sub-par displays since the Six Nations.
With 19 days to go until the final, Leinster play Ulster next in the PRO14 next Saturday and Saracens are away to an improved Wasps side. The following weekend, Leinster have a rest week, while Saracens host top of the table Exeter.
With a play-off spot already secured, Mark McCall is likely to rest his key men in that fixture before one of the great finals of the decade. Star men are coming back into form at the right time. It will be a thrilling contest.
Given the personnel and the versatility they have shown, Leinster will go in as slight favourites, but Saracens, sprinkled with class, could shade it.
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