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Leinster Rugby vs Saracens
Heinken Champions Cup Quarter-final
Aviva Stadium, Dublin,
Saturday, 19th September 2020, 15:00

TV: Live on BT Sports

This is the game!

This is the game Leinster have been waiting for ever since they lost last year's final to Saracens. The game they knew they'd more than likely have to win in order to win back the trophy. What they couldn't have imagined then was how drastically Saracens circumstances would have changed in the intervening sixteen months since that day in Newcastle.

It was the most open secret in the game that Saracens success was based on the abuse of the salary cap that allowed them to build a squad of world class internationals while also managing to poach the best players from other English clubs. Even in May last year there was talk of another Premiership enquiry but the assumption was that they would just slime their way out of it again like they'd done previously. It made Saracens the most despised club in England and they seemed to revel in the hatred with even their coaches quoting Taylor Swift's lyrics "haters gonna hate" on the sideline.

The first bombshell came in November when Saracens were docked 36 points for abuses of the salary cap for the previous three seasons. At that stage Saracens announced they would have to concentrate on Premiership survival and they sent out weakened teams in the first few rounds of the Heineken Cup, but still managed to get an away bonus point in Thomond park. However in January when the Premiership looked at the wages for the current season Saracens accepted they were caught bang to rights and they would be relegated from the Premiership at the end of the season.

Despite many players' protestations that they were at Saracens not for the money, but instead for the wonderful culture; "the Saracens Way" etc etc, the rats soon started deserting the sinking ship. Six of the starters in last year's final Liam Williams, Alex Lozowski, Ben Spencer, Titi Lamositele, Will Skelton, and George Kruis have already cleared out their lockers. Other players like Ben Earl, Nick Isiekwe, Jack Singleton, Joe Gray, Nick Tompkins, Juan Figallo, Rhys Carre and Matt Gallagher have either left or gone out on loan for a season while they're in the championship.

In the end, mouthy obnoxiousness and entitled deviousness defined the real club culture. All their success was ultimately based on brazen cheating so it's effectively worthless. As Brian Clough said to Leeds United, "you can throw all your medals in the bin, because they all came from cheating".

Despite all this, Saracens still retain the guts of a very strong side, especially in the first fifteen. They have been denied the services of their captain Owen Farrell who tried to decapitate an eighteen year old two weeks ago against Wasps. The most remarkable thing was that he got a ban at all as he's been getting away with high tackles for years. Alex Goode moves from full back to replace Farrell at out-half alongside the massively experienced Richard Wigglesworth who will retire at the end of this season. Longtime servant Brad Barritt will also retire at the end of this season and he skippers the team from the centre alongside Duncan Taylor. Elliot Daly moves from the centre to take Goode's spot at full back and Alex Lewington and Sean Maitland are on the wing.

Mako Vunipola has recovered from a back issue to start at loosehead prop, with Jamie George at hooker and South African Vincent Koch at tighthead. Maro Itoje is another world class player (and a world class mouth too) and he'll need careful attention from Leinster. He is partnered by the experienced Tim Swinson in the second row. Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray and that special human being Billy "Jesus Lives Matter" Vunipola is at number eight. While their starting fifteen is still very strong the player drain has affected their bench with a lot of unfamiliar names aside from the excellent reserve loosehead Richard Barrington and the experienced journeymen Calum Clark and Aled Davies.

Ever since Saracens were relegated in January, this game has been the only meaningful match they had to focus on. Saracens had the luxury of resting their whole first team squad last week in a facile win over Exeter's academy. What's more they won't be back in this competition for at least two seasons as they'll have to get promoted and then qualify for it so they'll be extra motivated to win it one more time before their enforced hiatus.

Leinster won the Pro14 final last week to finish their domestic season with a 100% win record. Ulster made a game of it for the guts of a half and scored a fine early try. But after that the Leinster defence just bludgeoned them into submission and they never really looked like scoring again. Despite that Leinster will have been far from happy with the performance. The lineout wobbled badly again in the first half and they were penalised far too many times at the breakdown again, especially in the second half when completely dominant. Their defence was excellent though and really it's going to be a battle of defences tomorrow afternoon.

Despite Josh van der Flier's man of the match performance last week Will Connors is given the number seven jersey. That Connors is trusted to start his first ever European match in such a massive game is a testament to how much his stock has risen over the season. He would have probably been fourth choice openside (if everyone was fit) at the beginning of the season behind Dan Leavy, van der Flier and Scott Penny in most people's eyes. Compared to those other three he doesn't offer that much in attack and he rarely wins turnovers. But his tackling is off the chart in terms of numbers, quality and intensity. He would have been training like Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV for the last two weeks with a picture of Billy Vunipola inserted for Ivan Drago. It's the biggest test of his career so far but Connors has stepped up every time he's been asked this season.

Connors takes his place in the back row alongside the in-form Caelan Doris and Jack Conan, a player who'll be desperate to prove a point after last year's final. James Ryan was a little quiet last week which was understandable after six months off, but he generally ramps up quickly enough and he'll need to be at his best to combat Itoje. Devin Toner will have been working all week to tighten up the whole lineout operation after a couple of system failures last week and in a very interesting call Sean Cronin is selected ahead of Ronan Kelleher at hooker this week. Cian Healy and Andrew Porter are retained at prop and unfortunately Tadhg Furlong is still not fit enough to even be named on the bench.

At half-back Luke McGrath and Johnny Sexton both come back into the side after Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne handled things so well last week. Garry Ringrose will have benefitted from captaining Leinster to a trophy last week and he's alongside the in-form Robbie Henshaw, another player who'll be relishing the physical challenge. Hugo Keenan will also make his European debut tomorrow alongside Jordan Larmour and James Lowe in the back three. They'll have another busy day chasing and fielding kicks, but you'd hope Leinster can get them some decent ball to test out the Saracens wide defence. In another interesting selection Ryan Baird gets the nod over Scott Fardy on the bench.

Despite being so dominant in their domestic league or perhaps because of it, frankly this season will feel like a failure to Leinster if they lose tomorrow. It will feel like they haven't really advanced. Saracens have nothing to lose. If they're defeated they can blame the player drain and if they win we'll never hear the end of their glorious triumph from their craven cheerleaders in the English media who's bought into the "Saracens Way" cult. On the flip side Saracens haven't played a truly competitive game of rugby in eight months and hopefully will be a little out of practice.

A lot of their Leinster pack have been bullied by these Saracens forwards in the blue of Leinster and in the green of Ireland. Some will say the English players are bigger and there's nothing they can do, but if you believed that Irish forwards would never have triumphed over English packs. Leinster need to tackle lower, harder and faster. They need to be fast off the line and smash the Sarries ball carriers back. Unlike in last year's final, they need to make the most of any attacking chances that come their way. They need to be good in the air to combat the Saracens kicking game. They need to kick smartly from the hand and look to move the big Sarries pack around.

They can do this tomorrow, but it will need their best performance of the season.

This is the game!!!

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Saracens
Teams Jordan Larmour 15 Elliot Daly
Hugo Keenan 14 Alex Lewington
Garry Ringrose
13 Duncan Taylor
Robbie Henshaw 12 Brad Barritt (C)
James Lowe 11 Sean Maitland
Johnny Sexton (C) 10 Alex Goode
Luke McGrath 9 Richard Wigglesworth

Cian Healy 1 Mako Vunipola
Sean Cronin 2 Jamie George
Andrew Porter 3 Vincent Koch
Devin Toner 4 Maro Itoje
James Ryan 5 Tim Swinson
Caelan Doris 6 Mike Rhodes
Will Connors 7 Jackson Wray
Jack Conan 8 Billy Vunipola

Replacements Ronan Kelleher 16 Tom Woolstencroft
Ed Byrne 17 Richard Barrington
Michael Bent 18 Alec Clarey
Ryan Baird 19 Callum Hunter-Hill
Josh van der Flier 20 Calum Clark
Jamison Gibson-Park
21 Aled Davies
Ross Byrne 22 Manu Vunipola
Rory O'Loughlin 23 Dom Morris

Not Considered
due to Injury
Dan Leavy,
Vakh Abdaladze,
Conor O'Brien,
Peter Dooley,
Adam Byrne,
Dave Kearney,
Tadhg Furlong


Officials Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France),
Assistant referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Joy Neville (Ireland),
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2020-09-18

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