Saracens remain at the pinnacle of European rugby by not standing still

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When people talk about great dynasties across sport, the likes of the All Blacks, New England Patriots or the Golden State Warriors will more often than not come into conversation.

The thing that sets these teams apart from the rest is their ability to maintain high standards, a winning formula and strong culture across a number of years.

The key to this is evolution.

Teams that challenge for success across the years need to keep developing and test themselves in different ways to separate them from the chasing pack.

With a target on your back, and the opposition only improving, this is borne out of necessity in today’s dog-eat-dog sporting landscape.

On the club rugby front, the team that epitomises this most is Saracens.

Their dominance across both European and domestic competition in recent years has been nothing short of exceptional.

The North London side clinched a third European title in four seasons on Saturday after another impressive unbeaten campaign – adding to their triumphs in 2016 and 2017.

The reality is the elite sides stay at the top by not resting on their laurels.

Looking back on Sarries from earlier this decade, they were a side built on the principles of old English rugby – accurate set piece, strong forward pack and a stubborn ability to grind out win after win. It was the epitome of the Steve Borthwick era.

When Mark McCall took the reigns in 2009, Saracens employed a mastermind who has constantly improved the team and moved the bottom ten per cent of their performance into something more positive and consistent. He has essentially shaped the Men in Black into an unstoppable force.

They are a side now capable of winning a game in all areas of the pitch, with the introduction of the likes of Liam Williams (signed from Scarlets in 2017) and Alex Lozowski (signed from Wasps in 2016) now making them even more of a potent and dangerous attacking force.

In addition, McCall has built a team on solid foundations, and then made them the untouched in every other area, with their defence, set-piece, workrate and fitness among the best around. At out-half, they have a player – Owen Farrell – who is consistently producing mammoth displays and getting the maximum out of the players around him.

An array of their stunning attributes were on show against Leinster at St. James’ Park on Saturday: their ability to come back from 10-0 down, their ability to turn the contest around and wrestle the momentum before half-time, and their brute power and accuracy to duly up the tempo late in the second half and continually improve as the contest wore on.

While George Kruis (27 tackles), Maro Itoje (26 tackles), Jamie George (23 tackles) and Billy Vunipola (18 tackles) will milk the limelight for their impressive displays in the Champions Cup final, Brad Barritt (28 tackles) and European Player of the Year Alex Goode stood out consistently for the winners across their European campaign.

Barritt (33 in August) and Goode (31 last week) have been essential parts of the Saracens puzzle for over a decade.

And the next iteration of this side is already in the planning.

England star Elliot Daly will be added to that next season when he joins from Wasps. More class to be sprinkled across a world class squad already.

And with the Saracens second team playing Newcastle in the A-League final on Monday night, it suggests the strength in depth at Allianz Park is showing no signs of slowing down.

Scary really considering how flawless they are across every position.

A lot of the credit will undoubtedly go to the players but McCall and his coaching staff deserve immense praise for the game plan and inner belief instilled in the squad over time. They are unstoppable force and one of the most enjoyable teams to watch across any sport.

Saracens have sealed one half of the double and, with respect to Rob Baxter’s impressive Exeter, they are firm favourites to win the Gallagher Premiership before a ball is even kicked or passed in the semi-finals.

They will take a day or two off now before turning their attentions to the semi-finals on Saturday week where they will be bidding for a fourth title in five years.

For Saracens’ rivals, the hope may hope that at some point, they will hit their peak and start to decline. For now, though, there is absolutely no sign of this any time soon, especially with an average age of 27.5 years old from their 15 starting players.

Evolution never ends.

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Saracens show their supreme class in Champions Cup victory over Leinster

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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.

GOOD

Saracens’ class

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.

Well-deserved champions.

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.

BAD

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.

VERDICT

Saracens: A+

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: B-

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.

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Johnny Sexton v Owen Farrell and other key battles that could decide Leinster versus Saracens

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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.

Leinster Rugby v Bath Rugby - Heineken Champions Cup

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.

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