Three weekends ago, the usual crew plus a few fresh faces headed up to Newcastle to watch the Champions Cup final. Formerly known as the Heineken Cup, it’s Europe’s premier rugby competition and defending champions Leinster were up against twice winners Saracens. It was 1 vs. 2, Ireland vs England, Sexton vs. Farrell and the final everyone wanted.
Saracens were undefeated in Europe and looking for their third European title in four years (the second of which in 2017 we’d been at Murrayfield for). Whilst Leinster had dropped points en route to the final, they arrived in the north of England looking for their 5th European title to stand alone as the most successful European club of all time (Toulouse also have 4).
It was an incredibly comfortable train ride up from London and on arrival into Newcastle we headed for the Quayside where we enjoyed a few beers in the warm spring sunshine. There appeared to be far more Leinster fans in town and there was a wonderful atmosphere around the city. St James’ Park itself is an old-school football stadium, with its box shape and steep stands, and I’d been once before to also watch rugby (the Springboks beat Scotland in the 2015 Rugby World Cup). It was a beautiful day, a full house and a gripping and incredibly physical game of rugby.
Leinster were quickest out the blocks and leading 3-0 within 5 minutes. Saracens started to dictate territory and possession but were left for nothing to show for it after the first quarter. A searing run from Leinster fullback Rob Kearney split open the Saracens defence and a few phases later prop Cian Healy almost had the game’s 1st try but was adjudged not to have gotten the ball down. Relief for Saracens was short-lived, however, with Maro Itoje yellow-carded for repeated infringements and both props hobbling off at the same time. Leinster backed themselves with a five-metre scrum straight after, and within minutes the world’s best tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong was over for the game’s first try.
The conversion from Johnny Sexton would turn out to be Leinster’s last points of the match as 14-man Sarries stepped it up a level. A ferocious defensive tackle led to a breakdown penalty to make it 10-3 before a wonderfully worked try after the hooter, and touchline conversion, saw it all square at half time.
Leinster came out firing after the break but some wonderful defensive work from Saracens winger Liam Williams, who charged off the line to make a huge hit then won the ball on the ground, kept Leinster at bay. When Leinster were reduced to 14 men a short while later Saracens capitalised – first a penalty from Farrell made it 13-10 before an incredibly powerful try from Billy Vunipola, charging through 4 Leinster players off the back of a 5-m scrum, stretched the lead to 8 (with the conversion making that 10).
Saracens were not letting this slip as they upped the pressure and suffocated Leinster with their incredible defence to see out the game and win their third European title in four years. With a number of world class players, an incredible strength in depth and the age profile of their players, this looks to be the start of some dynasty.
‘* – A huge thank you to Zoneboy and Polly-Pints for sharing their pictures