This final was one of the most highly anticipated for a while, Leinster in possession of 4 stars, sharing the record 4 wins with Toulouse. And Saracens looking to add a third to their tally.
I’d bought a Golden Ticket along with a group of friends last May, it was a happy set of Saracens fans who travelled up North by various means. My journey was via Harrogate and an Airbnb, it felt too far to trek in one go on my own. That meant I was able to visit the RHS Harlow Carr Garden, which is beautiful, before heading to Newcastle.
The Challenge Cup gave a preview of St James’s Park, a ground I’d only seen from the outside. It’s impressive, but disappointingly only had one small screen, which detracted slightly from the match experience. In common with the Principality Stadium in Cardiff St James is in the middle of the City, which is always good for a big game. The RFL have held their Magic Weekend there for the last few years, which will have been great I imagine.
I enjoyed the match between La Rochelle and ASM Clermont Auvergene, it was a big ask for fans of 2 French teams to travel to the North of England, but the game attracted a crowd of over 28,000, many of whom were very vocal French fans. More of that match on another post.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about Saracens chances for this one before it started, in spite of the fact their performance in the semi-final against Munster had been one of the best I’d seen this season.
The first half was a torrid affair and largely a tale of immense defence. Leinster were the first to get points on the board with a penalty from the boot of Jonny Sexton after just 3 minutes. Saracens had a concerted spell of defending their line, they succeeded in defending but they conceded a yellow card for Maro Itoje as is often the way. He departed with 29 minutes on the board, Leinster made their way over the line on 31 with a try for Taidgh Furlong. The conversion took the score to 10 nil.
In the lead up to that try Saracens lost both of their first choice (for this game) props. Titi Lamositele, who for me was one of the stories of the squad, he’s come on in leaps and bounds this season. It was such a shame to see his match finish early. It was also very worrying to see Mako Vunipola leaving the pitch with only 29 minutes on the clock. Especially as Saracens were 10 nil down.
I’m glad to see that Maro Itoje was sent to the naughty step at 29 minutes, in the ground those 10 minutes went very quickly. Saracens pulled back 3 points with 14 men on the pitch. There was a determination about the men in red and back to 15 they went over for a try, with Sean Maitland touching down, after a sublime passage of play involving Ben Spencer and Owen Farrell. Farrell slotted the conversion over the posts, taking the scores to all even as the half time whistle went! That was quite amazing!
A moan at half time; there were many Leinster fans in the crowd, that was always going to be the case, it was incredibly disappointing that large numbers of them felt the need to boo literally every decision that went against them. But, at least they forgot to boo Billy Vunipola once the match had started, so that was a saving grace! I hate to say it, but as a Saracens fan that made what happened in the second half all the better. A quick word for my lovely Leinster friend Joanne, who I happened to bump into before the game, for her and a couple of other Leinster friends I apologise for the moan.
I’m going to quote a couple of headlines post match which give a good idea of how things went –
Irish Times – Disconsolate Leinster will pick themselves up after pummelling by Saracens
BT Sport – O’Driscoll exclusive – Brutal Sarries blew Leinster away
Those words pretty much sum up the second half. While it wasn’t high scoring Saracens were relentless, that cup was only ever going back to North London. I am a fan of stats, I think that’s the cricket tragic in me, a few stand out, but don’t really tell the story –
Possession – Leinster 56%, Saracens 44%
Tackles – Leinster 166, Saracens 207
Metres Run – Leinster 366, Saracens 437
This was a huge defensive effort from Saracens, my thoughts watching from the stands was that Leinster didn’t look like scoring at any time in the second half. There were massive tackles throughout, with Liam Williams and Alex Lozowski both punching above their weights at times.
Maro Itoje had received what was probably a team yellow in the first half, Scott Fardy was the recipient of one for Leinster in the 58th minute. Owen Farrell put Saracens ahead with the resulting penalty.
The result was sealed by a Billy Vunipola try, just before Fardy returned to the field, picking the ball up from the base of the scrum he powered over the line. The joy amongst both players and fans was plain to see, personally I had a sore throat from all the yelling!
Amongst the Saracens fans is the delightful Louie, before the game he said Saracens would win by 10 points! He was spot on, the final score was Leinster 10 Saracens 20, he knows his rugby does that young man, not bad at just 9 years old!
Saracens had won this trophy having gone unbeaten throughout the tournament, a feat they achieved in 2016 and one emulated by Leinster last season. Another added bonus was the announcement of Alex Goode as European Player of the Year. He stepped into the 10 shirt at short notice in both home games against Glasgow and had 2 outstanding matches; on top of anything he’d done in his own 15 shirt. What a player to have in your team – Eddie. Oh no, Eddie isn’t interested in a player who is one of the best in the Northern Hem, go figure??