The long wait is nearly over. No, it’s not the finale of Game of Thrones but another battle to see who will reign supreme in European rugby this year.
Both Leinster and Saracens are lining up nicely for the season close-out, with shots at both their domestic and the European crown, but only one can accomplish the feat. For Leinster, if they can do it, it will be for a remarkable second year in a row.
This has been a strange year, lately peppered with miss-firing teams and results the boys in blue will not be proud of, followed by games where they look invincible.
Admittedly, having such a lead in the Pro 14 meant that there has not been a lot to play for recently. But Leinster were able to turn it back on, almost like turning on a tap, to beat Toulouse. The flow they produced that day after stilted performances against Benetton and Glasgow was amazing.
Saracens have slightly better form, although they did rest most of the first team for this weekend’s victory over Exeter. The Chiefs also rested most of their starters; both teams are safely through to the knock out stages and won’t meet again until the final at the earliest.
Newcastle is the venue next Saturday. For Saracens, home country advantage will not mean much. The vast majority of the supporters in the stadium don’t like them. Not even the travelling, non-Leinster, Irish fans will be able to find any reason to cheer for the opposition this time around!
In the spirit of spreading the game around and bringing it to places that don’t ordinarily support rugby union in large numbers, it is probably a good venue. It will certainly be an easier location to get to than Bilbao was last year. The city and the ground more than made up for the journey.
Even so, I find my route to the final this year is going to be through Glasgow. From what I hear, a lot of Leinster fans are also taking that route, so there should be some craic on the train journey down.
Getting there is half the battle; you also need somewhere to hang up your boots after the game. Win or lose, there will be time for pints. Newcastle has a lot more accommodation than last year’s venue, so there should be a decent party atmosphere in and around the town also.
So, four-time winners and holders are going up against two-timers and the previous year’s champions. They are probably the two best teams in Europe at the moment and this is the final that the competition deserves.
It won’t be an easy game, nor pretty. Saracens play a suffocating defensive game peppered with clever kicking. Leinster usually play teams like that by holding onto the ball, building up phases, but not necessarily going anywhere.
Games like that usually end up with most of the points scored from penalty kicks, with a late drop kick a possibility. If the only scores during the game are three-pointers, then the advantage will be with Saracens.
Leinster, and possibly only Leinster, possess the keys that might unlock this Saracens defence. We saw what they can do at the quarter-final stage last year (albeit that it will be a totally different game this time on truly neutral ground).
That’s why it is important that James Lowe is a starter; he holds one of those keys. It’s also important that he bring control to his game. Remember how he did not exactly manage that against Munster back in October? He is brilliant, and passionate, but just has to channel that into his offensive game.
Sean O’Brien is another that must start. He finishes up at Leinster after a glittering, although injury-strewn career. No one can say that he hasn’t given everything he can to both Leinster and Ireland over the years. Victory on Saturday will be the best send-off his team mates can give him.
Most of the team after that picks itself, with a few marginal calls in the back row and back three. The tough decision will be to start Scott Fardy or bring him on the bench, which excludes Jamison Gibson-Park. But it would be the smart call on Cullen’s part.
I’m looking forward to this like no other final. It would be a pleasure to beat Saracens. The other teams we have faced in finals, Leicester, Northampton, Ulster and Racing 92, all had some sort of draw to them. The first three had been past winners that had not had recent success. Ulster had won the cup in 1999, followed by Northampton and then Leicester twice. Racing, last year’s final opponents had not won it but had been in finals.
The difference this year is going into the unknown, the chance at being the first to win the competition five times. What a big game the semi-final was, to knock out the only other country to have one four altogether. Getting a fifth star on the jersey will be an incredible achievement.
The fans feel it. The players feel it and perhaps the opposition will sense it on the day. Leinster have got to want this more than Saracens. We have to believe that it is our manifest destiny. Hit every ruck like it will be the last. Make every tackle a dominant one. Send every pass to hand and kick to the sweet spot.
I’ve no doubt that the team can rise to the occasion, but I still believe that it will be a tight, low scoring game, with perhaps a try or maybe two. If our defence holds out and we can keep the penalty count low, then we should be able to ride out whatever they send our way.