A match that has perhaps been as eagerly anticipated as the opening fixture of this year’s Six Nations between Ireland and England in February, kicks off on Saturday, as the final that most people wanted in the European Champions Cup takes place between Ireland’s Leinster and England’s Saracens. The two best club sides in Europe do battle in Newcastle in a match that should be one for the ages. It may be club rugby but it has the aura of a classic Test match in the making.
So here’s what got us talking this week in the buildup to what should be a gripping eighty minutes of top level rugby.
Saracens vs Leinster – Saturday, May 11th – Newcastle
It may only be club rugby but Saturday’s match has all the trappings of a classic Test match. Ireland and England’s finest go head to head in what will be for many of the players involved one of their last big games before the World Cup in September. Consequently, while their primary focus will be on lifting one of rugby’s most coveted cups in Newcastle, a good performance will also lay down some markers of what we can expect to see from Ireland and England come the World Cup. A Cup final in a World Cup year always seems to have double the stakes.
Leinster should have the more dynamic front row, but Saracens are more than capable of negating it.
Leinster’s front office trio of Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Sean Cronin just oozes class and coherence. It’s a tight unit that functions almost effortlessly as one. Consequently on form you’d have to give Leinster the edge here, but in Hooker Jamie George and Loosehead prop Mako Vunipola Saracens have two of the best in the business, with Vunipola consistently making the headlines for Saracens and England all season. We’d argue that George is the more accurate dart thrower at lineout time, but Cronin the more devastating finisher anywhere near the try line. Throw in Furlong and Healy who is a master of the turnover for Leinster, and Saracens are going to have their work cutout for them, especially with Furlong coming back to his bruising best in the Irish side’s semi-final encounter with Toulouse.
Can Will Skelton keep his discipline in a battle with arguably Europe’s best second row partnership?
Leinster’s James Ryan and Devin Toner are masters of the cool, calm and collected approach to life in the second row, with Ryan’s work rate rapidly becoming the stuff of legends and a player who we have yet to see have a bad game. Saracens George Kruis is a reliable workhorse for both club and England, but Australian import Will Skelton is a wild card. A favorite of the referee’s whistle when wearing the gold of Australia in high pressure matches, Skelton is likely to receive special attention from referee Jerome Garces on Saturday. The big Wallaby second rower, can be devastating when on song, but under pressure is prone to giving away endless and silly penalties. Quick to boil over and lose the plot it remains to be seen if he can keep it together in the face of two of Europe’s most composed and unflappable players.
In a back row battle for the ages one of Europe’s most underrated players meets his kindred spirit
As regular readers of our musings know we regard Leinster and Australia’s Scott Fardy as one of Club and Test rugby’s most underrated players. We’d argue the same from a club perspective for Saracens Jackson Wray, even more so given his seeming oversight by the England selectors. When it comes to reliability you couldn’t ask for two finer players. While Fardy has got the recognition from Wallaby selectors he deserves, Wray’s omission from England selections has always perplexed us. Perhaps Saturday will be the day that Wray finally gets on England Coach Eddie Jones’ radar? However, with four other world class players in the back rows – Ireland and Leinster’s Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan up against England and Saracens Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, it could be just another day at the office for Wray.
England’s Eddie Jones and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt will be watching the battles at 9 and 10 VERY closely
Both national coaches will be looking for big performances from the scrum halves in tomorrow’s matches. Leinster’s Luke McGrath has the potential to steal some significant limelight from Ireland’s first choice scrum half – the exceptional Conor Murray. A strong performance on Saturday will surely see McGrath secure the backup scrum half berth for Japan. The same could be said for Saracens’ Ben Spencer, who we think should be a shoe in for England’s number two spot for Japan.
Meanwhile two of the world’s best fly halves once more go head to head. Saracens and England number 10 Owen Farrell has been the more in form of the two this season. Ireland and Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton was voted World Player of the year in 2018, but so far this year his form has at times eluded him. Both players though have clearly lost the plot under pressure this year, and while England and Saracens have perhaps felt this less often than Ireland and Leinster, Saracens’ Owen Farrell is prone to losing sight of the big picture once things are not going his way. Sexton’s frustration has been well documented this year, and with it so has Leinster and Ireland’s dip in form at crucial moments. Both these players need to be at their very best on Saturday, and England and Ireland’s coaching staff will be watching anxiously from the sidelines.
With the World Cup just around the corner this is the Leinster centre duo’s biggest game of the year
Gary Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw need to fire for Leinster and with it Ireland tomorrow. Saracens Brad Barritt and Alex Lozowski will need to do the same, but the pressure on them in terms of future international commitments is perhaps slightly less. Ringrose and Henshaw are vital to Ireland’s World Cup plans, so tomorrow’s match sees them needing to be at their best and also avoid any injuries that would sideline them from the trip to Japan, something that in Henshaw’s case is a genuine concern. We think the Irish center pairing is the more dangerous of the two, but if they are playing with a sense of caution with a view to Japan then this could be a real opportunity for Barritt and Lozowski to run riot.
Two World Class back lines should provide plenty of sparks and more than a few moments to remember
In Leinster and Ireland fullback Rob Kearney and Wales and Saracens winger Liam Williams you have two of the best players in the world under the high ball. Saracens fullback Alex Goode has beaten more defenders in the competition this year than any other player taking to the field in Newcastle. Saracens Sean Maitland and Leinster’s James Lowe are two of the tournament’s leading try scorers out wide. Finally Ireland and Leinster’s Jordan Larmour has X-factor written all over him and clearly relishes a big opportunity like tomorrow to put such skills on display and lay down a marker for the World Cup. There is such strength in all aspects of back line play spread across these six gentlemen’s skill sets, that it should all add up to some thrilling running rugby if both teams earn the right to go wide.
We are so divided on how to call this one, as in reality we feel there is nothing in it between these two sides, we are almost reluctant to do so. However, the tradition of this blog dictates that we must – so with a deep breath here goes. On form we give Saracens the slightest of nods, even if overall we think Leinster has the more dangerous and accomplished side. If Leinster find their killer form then it could be a scary afternoon for Saracens. With the pressure generated by the imminent World Cup being slightly less for some of Saracens’ players, expect them to be slightly more composed and focused on the immediate task at hand. Leinster know that if they can rattle Saracens’ Owen Farrell then their squad of Irish internationals has the experience to take their game to another level. However, if Sexton gets frustrated early on then this is Saracens game to lose. Despite their erratic form at times this season, we think the desire to put a fifth star on that jersey as well as give Ireland a much needed confidence boost leading up to the World Cup, will see Leinster just edge a titanic struggle by two points! However, none of us are putting a bet on tomorrow’s outcome as that’s how close we really think it is. More than anything we’re just hoping for a game that we’ll all still be talking about years from now whoever wins – and let’s face it both these teams have the ability to fulfill such a wish!