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Leinster Rugby vs Saracens
Heineken Champions Cup Final
St James' Park, Newcastle
Saturday, 11th May 2019, 17:00

TV: Live on BT Sports, Virgin 1, Channel 4

In the unusual environs of Newcastle United's St. James' Park, Leinster bid to make history this Saturday by becoming the first team to win the Heineken Champions Cup for the fifth time.

But to overtake Toulouse they face the sternest of tests in Saracens who are looking to match Leinster's feat from 2009-12 of winning three cups in four seasons to make a claim for being the best team of this current era. Saracens are the only undefeated team in the competition this season having comfortably gotten through a relatively weak pool and then making short work of Glasgow and Munster in the knock-out rounds. Their now infamous semi-final in Coventry against Munster was a sour affair on and off the pitch surrounded by the controversy over Billy Vunipola's insistence on spouting his religious belief that homosexuals are going to hell. It was also the worst attended semi-final in nearly twenty years once again confirming that Saracens are deeply unpopular in English rugby outside their own tiny fanbase.

If you happen upon a Saracens fan this weekend, they'll tell you the reason they're not liked is simple jealousy of their success. But Saracens were disliked long before they became successful mainly due to their obnoxious behaviour on the pitch and their sharp practices off it. There's no escaping the fact that their whole existence is as a rich man's plaything as they've racked up massive losses every year. They claim to be operating within the English salary cap but frankly no one believes them and they're being investigated once again. But don't expect such a intrinsically self-serving organisation as the Premiership to do anything more than cover it up again. So if you want to believe Saracens they've somehow attracted big foreign signings such as Liam Williams, Vincent Koch, Will Skelton and Christopher Tolofua while also managing to keep half the England team happy in terms of wages while staying within the salary cap. They've certainly built up an impressive squad but the reason their head coach Mark McCall doesn't get a huge amount of credit for their success is that it just all feels like one big lie.

Regardless of how their squad came to be there's no doubting they're a very fine team if somewhat robotic in their approach. However, this will be the fourth time they will play Leinster in Europe and they're still looking for their first win. They lost both games in the pool stages on the way to Leinster's win in 2011 and last year they lost 30-19 in the Aviva Stadium in the quarter-finals. That match really stuck in their craw and they've been using it as a motivational tool ever since. They're absolutely determined to get revenge and it's vital that Leinster don't give them an early start. Just like England in the Aviva in the Six Nations Saracens will be looking to physically dominate up front and it's vital that the Leinster pack meet that challenge like they did last season. Both defences have been very strong this year and there is a fear that both teams could cancel each other out, a bit like last years final in Bilbao against Racing. That final definitely wasn't helped by wet weather and a poor referee and unfortunately it looks like it's going to be a similar situation this time out with rain forecast and another inept referee appointed in Jerome Garces. Garces was once a respected referee but he's almost become a parody of himself in recent years with his haughtiness now accompanied by a persistent laziness in refusing to adjudicate the breakdown or the offside line.

The breakdown will be key and Saracens were allowed cheat to their heart's content against Munster so Leinster must be prepared for the same again and take the law into their own hands if necessary, if Garces abdicates his responsibility once again. In terms of the set-piece Leinster could just edge the scrum while Saracen's lineout is incredibly efficient. Both packs have big ball carriers in the likes of Cian Healy, James Ryan and Jack Conan for Leinster and the two Vunipolas and Maro Itoje for Saracens.

In the backline two young scrum-halves with international ambitions go head to head in Luke McGrath and Ben Spencer. Spencer's box-kicking against Munster was superb and Leinster can expect more of the same. There is little you can say about the match-up between Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell that hasn't been said already but it's fair to say both of them will be up for it. In the midfield Brad Barritt and Robbie Henshaw will relish the physical battle while Garry Ringrose and Alex Lozowski both are capable of making game-breaking plays. In the respective back threes Rob Kearney and Alex Goode are the steady hands at full back while James Lowe and Liam Williams are just as capable of divilment as they are of outstanding tries.

In terms of team news Saracens make two changes from their team that started the semi-final against Munster. Sean Maitland, who had to drop out late before that semi-final, is re-instated to the team on the right wing in place of David Strettle. Australian second row Will Skelton comes into the second row which means Maro Itoje shifts to blindside flanker in place of Mike Rhodes.

There was concern about the fitness of Mako Vunipola during the week but he's come through it and is named to start.

The Leinster starting team is unchanged from the semi-finals. That means Sean Cronin is fit to start after going off injured against Toulouse and that Scott Fardy is retained at number six after being promoted to the starting lineup on the day after Rhys Ruddock was unwell. Ruddock is named on the bench though alongside another backrow in Max Deegan and the recalled Jack McGrath. Tadgh Furlong will also win his 100th cap for the province.It's such a tight final to call that the bookies can barely separate them. Saracens frankly have had the look of champions and may just edge a tight one.

But it will be fantastic for all the good guys in rugby (and the gay guys and girls of rugby) if Leinster can beat Billy the martyr (BT Sports™) and his mates and make it five stars on next year's jersey.

Leinster Rugby (caps in brackets):

15. Rob Kearney (208)

14. Jordan Larmour (36)

13. Garry Ringrose (62)

12. Robbie Henshaw (34)

11. James Lowe (27)

10. Johnny Sexton (157) CAPTAIN

9. Luke McGrath (110)

1. Cian Healy (205)

2. Seán Cronin (170)

3. Tadhg Furlong (99)

4. Devin Toner (229)

5. James Ryan (28)

6. Scott Fardy (41)

7. Seán O’Brien (125)

8. Jack Conan (86)

16. James Tracy (91)

17. Jack McGrath (144)

18. Michael Bent (123)

19. Rhys Ruddock (158)

20. Max Deegan (43)

21. Hugh O’Sullivan (14)

22. Ross Byrne (69)

23. Rory O’Loughlin (60)

Not consider due to injury: Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Mick Kearney, Adam Byrne, Ross Molony, Jamison Gibson-Park, Barry Daly, Andrew Porter

Saracens:

15. Alex Goode

14. Sean Maitland

13. Alex Lozowski

12. Brad Barritt (captain)

11. Liam Williams

10. Owen Farrell

9. Ben Spencer

1. Mako Vunipola

2. Jamie George

3. Titi Lamositele

4. Will Skelton

5. George Kruis

6. Maro Itoje Mike Rhodes

7. Jackson Wray

8. Billy Vunipola

Replacements:

16. Joe Gray

17. Richard Barrington

18. Vincent Koch

19. Nick Isiekwe

20. Schalk Burger

21. Richard Wigglesworth

22. Nick Tompkins

23. David Strettle

Ref: Jerome Garces (France)

Assistant Ref 1: Romain Poite (France)

Assistant Ref 2: Pascal Gauzere (France)

TMO: Philippe Bonhoure (France)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2019-05-10

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