NEWCASTLE, England (Reuters) – England’s Saracens were crowned champions of Europe for the third time in four years on Saturday as they surged back from 10-0 down to overwhelm last year’s winners Leinster 20-10 in a ferocious final.
The Irish side, who beat Saracens in the quarter-finals last year and were seeking a record fifth triumph, led after a try for prop Tadhg Furlong, only for Saracens to force their way into the game with a brilliantly-created Sean Maitland try to make it 10-10 just before the break.
Both sides defended ferociously in a brutal third quarter but Saracens took advantage of a yellow card for Scott Fardy as another Owen Farrell penalty and a try by Billy Vunipola settled it.
“It’s a great victory. This is a group that have been through a lot – good and bad – and they want to work hard for each other,” Saracens coach Mark McCall said.
“We were 10-0 down against a quality team so this is a massive win. After Maro Itoje got sin-binned it was incredible to be level at halftime and the second half was as well as we’ve played in a final.”
The result meant Saracens have won every game of their European campaign – only the third time that has been achieved after their own run in 2016 and Leinster’s last season.
“We’ve spoken the last few weeks about being a tough team. You have to soak up pressure and respond when you get the opportunity,” Saracens captain Brad Barritt said.
“Leinster are an unbelievable team with very few weaknesses. We wanted to really throw the kitchen sink at them and not hold back.”
His team were deserved winners of what was widely billed as a showdown between undoubtedly the two best teams in Europe, showing all their tenacity and self-belief after a wobbly start.
Leinster made the early running and, after Johnny Sexton slotted an early penalty, Saracens suffered a triple blow after 29 minutes when they lost both props, Titi Lamositele and Mako Vunipola, to injury and had Itoje sin-binned.
Leinster declined the subsequent shot at goal and were rewarded with a decisive scrum that allowed Furlong to drive over and stretch the lead to 10-0.
Saracens needed something to lift them and they got it when George Kruis smashed Sexton to earn a penalty that Farrell landed and in first-half stoppage time they fashioned a brilliant try.
The forwards hammered at the line before great hands by Ben Spencer and Farrell spun the ball out for Maitland to stroll over unopposed.
Leinster piled on the pressure at the start of the second half but an amazing tackle and turnover by winger Liam Williams saved the day.
Both sides defended with ferocity and there were no further scores until just before the hour mark, the TMO ruling out a try by Richard Barrington but Farrell slotting a penalty as Leinster flanker Fardy was sin-binned.
Saracens got the vital score when Vunipola peeled off the back of a scrum with a trademark charge.
There was an extra bonus for Saracens fullback Alex Goode, who, despite being consistently overlooked by England, was named European Player of the Year.
“It was an unbelievable game. The whole squad was outstanding all year but that performance form the whole group to go 10-0 down and fight back like that was just outstanding,” Goode said.
“They’re a quality side. We knew it would be a brutal game and it was.”
Saracens will hope to complete the double when they return to domestic action, guaranteed a home semi-final in the Premiership playoffs, while Leinster will seek consolation via the Pro 14, where they face Muster in the semi-finals.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)