Saracens were crowned Champions Cup winners for the third time in four years as they came from 10-0 down to overcome four-time winners Leinster 20-10 in a thrilling final.
The Dublin side seized control early on through a try from Tadhg Furlong to put them 10-0 up, only for Saracens to force their way back into the contest as Sean Maitland went over just before half-time.
Both sides defended ferociously in a brutal second half but Saracens took advantage of a yellow card for Scott Fardy and the English outfit found their rhythm. First, Owen Farrell kicked a penalty and then Billy Vunipola burst through to make it 20-10.
Here’s our report card from the decider.
Leinster and Saracens will go down as the two best teams of the decade, but for Mark McCall’s side to win a third title in four years proves their supreme class and consistency. They were unstoppable after clawing their way back from 10-0 down and Leinster could not find a way to unlock their powerful defence.
Maro Itoje and George Kruis were flawless, Billy Vunipola unplayable, Jamie George immaculate and Owen Farrell – although quiet in the first half – controlled proceedings brilliantly from No10.
For all the brilliance they showed over the course of the 80 minutes, it was that period from the hour mark onward where they really stepped it up another level and showed their supreme attacking and defensive qualities.
Immense defensive display
The defensive shift both teams put in was incredible at St. James’ Park. If Saracens held Leinster at bay at one end, Leinster proved they could do it at the other end.
The line speed and accuracy in defence was superb with the two forcing pressure on each other for large parts of the final.
They did the simple things right, carrying nice and low, getting to the ground and rucking over the big correctly.
It might be a cliche but in a tight game like this simple rugby wins these type of cliffhanger matches and that’s what Saracens did to full effect.
Poor game management
Leinster had an opportunity to get out of the first half with a comfortable seven-point lead (10-3), but that last minute before the break came back to haunt them.
With everything going to plan, they had the chance to kick the ball dead, but instead Luke McGrath kicked it up in the air and Saracens collected possession.
The North-London side drove forward, built their attack and with some relentless pressure, piled over in the corner through Maitland.
Farrell converted from an acute angle to level the match.
It was a score Leinster shouldn’t have allowed to happen. However, when you’re under so much pressure with the physicality and power of Saracens, sometimes your decision making is affected and that was an example of it.
Leinster didn’t convert opportunities
The four-time winners had plenty of chances when foraging into the Saracens 22 but couldn’t breach a granite-like Saracens defence.
It was uncharacteristic of Leo Cullen’s men who are normally so clinical in those attacking positions, but they were ultimately bullied by the likes of Vunipola, Kruis and Itoje.
With Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose not winning their individual match-ups, it put Leinster on the back foot and prevented quality ball being shipped out wide to the elusive James Lowe and Jordan Larmour.
An area they definitely could have exploited Saracens such is the searing pace of the two Leinster wide men.
TACTICAL TURNING POINTS
Saracens simply lifted the intensity in the second half and Leinster struggled to stay with them.
Saracens looked dangerous in loose play and their transition from defence into attack was outstanding.
When Leinster backrow Scott Fardy was yellow carded, the winners lifted the intensity, scored ten points and that ultimately gave them the foothold in the contest.
It was the sheer ferocity of their speed, skill and general game management that made the difference in Newcastle.
They turned up the temperature midway through the second half and Leinster couldn’t find any weakness in the Saracens defence.
Leinster may have won more European titles, but Saracens deserve to be the team of the decade.
This was the complete performance from Saracens. There were minor errors in the first half but that shouldn’t overshadow what was an incredible performance from a sensational team. Top marks for their defensive efforts.
Leinster had every chance to capitalise on their chances in the second half, but Saracens scrambling defence was remarkable to restricting them to zero points after the break. It was a disappointing second period for a team that looked quality in the first 40. The drive for five continues.
Four-time winners and defending champions Leinster take on 2016 and 2017 winners Saracens in the Champions Cup final on Saturday.
The Dublin side are looking to become the first team in history to lift the European trophy five times, while Saracens are eyeing a third title in four seasons.
Here’s our key battles ahead of the decider.
TADHG FURLONG V MAKO VUNIPOLA
Vunipola was England’s leading light against Ireland in the Six Nations, and it is hoped his recent solid form will be transferred on to the European stage against an in-form Leinster side.
A devastating performer in the loose, the Saracens man is a totemic presence and will come up against the best No3 in the world in Furlong.
The imposing Leinster player may have the edge in the scrum, but he’ll need plenty of assistance from Cian Healy and Sean Cronin to get the upper hand on a dominant Sarries forward unit.
Could have a significant bearing on the match.
JAMES RYAN V MARO ITOJE
Two quality players who consistently produce big numbers each game.
Both players are different but primed to be future captains for both club and country.
Itoje is a better breakdown threat and pushes the boundaries more with referees, but Ryan is more athletic and brings immense physicality to the contest.
If a Lions team was to be selected tomorrow, Itoje and Ryan would be in the match-day squad.
At 24 and 22 respectively, they are sure to be stars for years to come.
JOHNNY SEXTON V OWEN FARRELL
Farrell has been in impeccable form since the Six Nations and his on-field presence is a threat to opposition.
Sexton, meanwhile, looked fresh against Toulouse after returning from a quad injury. When he plays well, so does everyone around him.
Both Farrell and Sexton are similar players – feisty, intelligent and excellent decision makers.
Although the Leinster star’s kicking has been off colour, he can still cause serious damage with ball in hand.
Will be central to Saturday’s result.
JACK CONAN V BILLY VUNIPOLA
Conan has brought his game to another level and finally fulfilled the talent he has always promised.
Vunipola missed last season’s Champions Cup quarter-final in Dublin, but was in majestic form in the semi-final win over Munster.
Both players have a priceless ability to get their sides on the front foot, whether it’s exploding off the back of scrums, carrying or simply hauling down opposition attackers.
If Leinster were to win and Conan was to outperform Vunipola, he would be asking serious questions about Ireland’s No8 jersey for the World Cup.
As the Dubai rugby season comes to an end, the fun doesn’t stop for Barrelhouse Rugby Club with their annual end-of-season tour. Usually tours are in May or June but thanks to the Rugby World Cup in Japan, the side will travel to Asia for their annual tour. In September the team will travel to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. With an even bigger squad this time round, they will be looking to come away with even more silverware.
Back in 2016 the team traveled to Thailand to take part in the Phuket International 10’s tournament with a small squad of just13 players. The team were victorious as as they were crowned the Beaker winners.
The following year, Warsaw, Poland, was the next challenge, this time with a bigger squad and higher aspirations, it was time to take part in the Warsaw Rugby Festival. Even though Poland is not considered a rugby-playing nation, their ability to host international teams made for an exciting weekend filled with great rugby. This was also where Barrelhouse sported their brand new tour kit, which ended up winning the “best dressed award”
Last year Krakow played hosts to the Barrelhouse team, which saw a squad of 20 players lacing their boots and take the field. The team triumphed in the competition and was crowned as the Krakow Men’s Trophy Winners.
The emphasis for each tour has always been inclusivity, but with this year the Barrelhouse would welcome anyone who wishes to join them on tour for a fun filled weekend of rugby. For more information on dates, cost and availability, reach out to tour manager Michiel Basson on +971525968242.