By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – The European Champions Cup has the heavyweight final it deserves on Saturday with Leinster and Saracens, the two most dominant clubs in the region with teams who would be a match for most countries in the World Cup, going head-to-head.
Defending champions Leinster are seeking to become the first club to win the competition five times following their triumphs of 2009, 2011, 2012, 2018 and have the proud record of never losing in the final.
Standing in their way are a Saracens team seeking their third European title in four years after wins in 2016 and 2017.
The teams met at the quarter-final stage last year when Leinster triumphed but Saracens, favourites to win a fifth English Premiership crown and fourth in the last five seasons, are in fantastic form.
They have won all eight of their Champions Cup matches this season. Only two teams have done that and lifted the trophy – Saracens in 2016 and Leinster last season.
The Irish side have actually won 16 of their 17 tournament matches since the start of last season, their only loss coming by a single point against Toulouse in this season’s pool stage.
Little wonder then that bookmakers can’t split the two teams for the game at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park ground (1600GMT).
Everywhere you look there are match-ups of the highest calibre, with British and Irish Lions team mates Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton both seeking to impose themselves and gain control from flyhalf.
Tadhg Furlong and Mako Vunipola are probably the most important props for Ireland and England respectively while the incredibly athletic James Ryan and Maro Itoje could claim the same at lock.
Leinster can strike from anywhere via Rob Kearney, Gary Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw while Saracens’ back three of Alex Goode, Liam Williams and Sean Maitland have delivered the goods consistently in recent years.
The mutual respect can be seen with every utterance from both sides during the build-up. “I’m full of respect for them in attack and defence,” said Leinster assistant coach Stuart Lancaster, who gave several of the Saracens players their international debut during his time as England coach.
“They have world class players in a lot of positions, they are very cohesive and experienced, they have a great team spirit and work ethic and are brilliantly coached by Mark McCall and his team.
“But we are pretty confident. To hold a free-scoring Toulouse as we did (in the semi-final) shows what form we are in and we beat Bath and Wasps well so we are confident about our ability to run up in the big games.”
Saracens hooker Jamie George, another Lion and now established as England’s first choice, repaid the compliment, while also backing his own side.
“Leinster have been the best team in Europe the last two years – this season we’ve challenged ourselves to push them as far as we can and I think we’ve done that,” he told the Guardian.
“We’re the only unbeaten team in the tournament and there’s huge confidence within the group. But it’s going to take a huge effort.”
He said his side were “well and truly beaten” in the quarter-final in Dublin last year but that they had learned from the defeat, particularly about the intensity needed to succeed at the very top.
“There is a sense in the group that we are going somewhere special, we’re taking it to where no club has been before in Europe,” he said. “That’s what it will take to win because these two teams are really pushing the standards of club rugby.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)