Leinster 10 Saracens 20: Billy Vunipola takes Saracens to Championship Cup glory

LEINSTER'S 'drive for five' is no longer alive, for this season at least, after Saracens completed a thrilling comeback in the Champions Cup final at Newcastle.

By Dave Craven
Saturday, 11th May 2019, 8:17 pm
Saracens celebrate their Champions Cup win over Leinster. (David Davies/PA Wire)
Saracens celebrate their Champions Cup win over Leinster. (David Davies/PA Wire)

Holders Leinster hoped to become the first side to become European champions five times but the Irish province ultimately fell short despite leading 10-0 at one point.

Instead, Saracens - inspired by England No8 Billy Vunipola and with captain Brad Barritt earning man-of-the-match - claimed their third title in just four years to underline their obvious quality.

The game was as intense as any Test match, not surprising given there was more than 20 internationals on show, with some of the defence brutal at times and line-breaks limited to the bare minimum.

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Saracens Alex Lozowski (right) is tackled by Leinster's Tadhg Furlong during the Champions Cup Final at St James' Park, Newcastle. (David Davies/PA Wire)

It was intoxicating nonetheless and high quality, just as you would expect from sides of such calibre.

But English champions Saracens, who saw full-back Alex Goode crowned European Player of the Year at the final whistle must have thought their chances were dwindling when they lost both starting props to injury on the half-hour.

They also saw British Lion Maro Itoje sin-binned at the same time, too, yellow carded for persistent infringing as Leinster tried to burrow over.

Loosehead Mako Vunipola had been a doubt beforehand but tighthead Titi Lamositele was injured earlier in the game and never truly recovered.

Leinster's Johnny Sexton makes a break during the Champions Cup Final at St James' Park, Newcastle. (Richard Sellers/PA Wire)

It is a rare sight see both props leave the field at the same time so early in a game and it was no surprise when Leinster duly scored moments later.

From the 5m scrum, No8 Jack Conan went close before Tadhg Furlong made sure, Johnny Sexton adding the extras to make it 10-0 in the 33rd minute.

Still, the Irish side could not add any further score while their opponents were down to 14; rather Saracens got off the mark themselves with an Owen Farrell penalty after George Kruis had isolated Sexton with a thunderous hit.

That meant, moments after Itoje's return, Saracens levelled when they scored with the final play of a fascinating half.

Saracens' Sean Maitland celebrates scoring his first try with teammates during the Champions Cup Final at St James' Park, (David Davies/PA Wire)

Leinster scrun-half Luke McGrath thought he had averted the danger with a stunning tackle on Sean Cronin, when the hooker's greater size looked certain to see him muscle over.

However, they were caught wider out when Goode let a pass float in front of him to cause confusion and Farrell's instinctive flick saw winger Sean Maitland ease over for a walk-in.

Farrell converted from the touchline and the sides headed into the dressing room all square.

However, Saracens controlled most of the second period eventually breaking their opponents down

In fairness, Leinster seemed set to hold them out; how did Devin Toner stop the giant Will Skelton so close to the line? Itoje looked destined to score, too, but he was denied as well.

However, the Leinster flanker Scott Fardy was deemed offside in the process as his side battled to keep out the sea of red and he was duly sin-binned in the 58th minute.

Farrell, of course, slotted the penalty but, moments later, Maitland was fortunate not to be yellow carded, too, after hitting Rob Kearney high when challenging for a kick.

That gave Leinster an immediate chance to hit back but, as they probed away, the opportunity disappeared as a falling Vunipola stuck out an arm to collect an intercept.

It proved telling; it gave his side position to apply ceaseless pressure of their own, especially in the scrum.

After they had forced another penalty on that set-piece close to the Leinster line, they chose to go again and, this time, Vunipola picked up from the back.

The England No8 had no right to score but, for once, the Irish defence buckled as he swatted off a raft of defenders to stretch over between the posts in the 67th minute.

Farrell converted for a 20-10 lead just as Fardy was returning to the field, realising his side - in a game of such fine margins - suddenly faced a mountainous task to retain their crown.

That was all the more so as Vunipola continued to torment, popping up to snaffle another intercept to further frustrate Leinster.

This time, though, it was in their own half; they were already struggling to get out.

Soon after, Vunipola departed the field, his work done with six minutes remaining, and his stellar side were home.

Leinster: Kearney; Larmour, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe; Sexton, McGrath; Healy (McGrath 63), Cronin (Tracy 51), Furlong (Bent 70), Toner (Deegan 74), Ryan, Fardy, O'Brien (Ruddock 63), Conan.

Saracens: Goode; Williams, Lozowski, Barritt, Maitland; Farrell, Spencer (Wigglesworth 56); M Vunipola (Barrington 30), George, Lamositele (Koch 30), Skelton, Kruis, Itoje, Wray, B Vunipola (Burger 74).

Referee: Jerome Garces (France)