It was an astonishing week of European sport for fans. Unfortunately, the chaotic can-you-believe-it theatre came mostly from Liverpool and Tottenham’s Champions League semi-final comebacks – whatever you think of rugby’s round-ball cousin, it is difficult to deny both games were a fantastic spectacle.
For rugby, which had its own European showpiece event in the Champions Cup final between Saracens and Leinster, it was a tough act to follow. Did Saracens 20-10 victory have the sheer drama of those football games? No. Was it still an absorbing, physical and exciting duel between the two best teams in the northern hemisphere? Hell yes.
And that is not to say it did not have its own moments of brilliance. Reduced to 14 men, following a Maro Itoje yellow card, the game in danger of slipping away from Saracens, they clicked through the gears and produced one of the most imposing displays of hard-tackling and gainline-breaking rugby you are ever likely to see. When Saracens are in the mood, few can live with them.
Four players – Brad Barritt, Jamie George, George Kruis and Maro Itoje – topped 20 tackles, while Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola and Will Skelton made 18. And they were big hits as well, reversing Leinster rather than just getting the man to the ground. It meant that while at times Leinster controlled possession, they were unable to do anything with it as Saracens drove them back with dominant hit after dominant hit.
Look at the intensity from Saracens!
Two MASSIVE hits to force a penalty to get them on the scoreboard ? pic.twitter.com/VHJwcKo70b
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) May 11, 2019
If Vunipola or Barritt weren’t making yards with ball in hand, it was Itoje or Will Skelton trucking it up. Relentless stuff; Leinster didn’t know where to focus their defensive attention. Vunipola skittling four Leinster defenders before slam-dunking the ball over the line will live fondly in my memory.
This was round two of England v Ireland from the Six Nations, in style as much as country of origin.
What is so crucial about this Saracens team is that everybody operates in unison. They are all reading from the same script (no matter what your personal view of the resulting performance), the players instinctively know their roles and what they have to do for the betterment of the team.
There are still moments of skill and inspiration – they are just clinically timed. Take Sean Maitland try in the final moments if the first half. With the clock red, Saracens had crafted a strong attacking opportunity, a three on three towards the left-hand side. It was by no means a given, the defenders were well set and matched in numbers, but a focus-grabbing dummy line by Alex Goode drew the Leinster players’ attention before Owen Farrell’s no-look speedy flick set Maitland free. Precision skill and execution.
Inspirational at fullback, the newly-crowned European player of the season (again), Alex Goode can add his name to the honourable ‘James Simpson-Daniel list’ of wonderful players deemed surplus to the international team’s coach’s requirements (see also the ‘Danny Cipriani index’).
Or take that moment of defensive inspiration by Liam Williams – flying out of the line with split-second timing to not only stop a Leinster attack dead in its tracks, but get back to his feet and make the turnover.
"That is an absolutely majestic piece of defending!"
Liam Williams with a HUGE tackle and turnover for Saracens!
How?! ? pic.twitter.com/4hKe4q57Xn
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) May 11, 2019
These are the players and the moments that make champion sides.
It is worth noting as well that 11 out of 23 came through the academy. Saracens are producing a conveyor belt of exciting talent – this is a golden generation to rival Manchester United’s Class of ’92 or the current England cricket ODI team, and I would argue it has yet to truly peak.
I don’t want this to come across as an objectivity-free fan letter to Saracens (and I can confirm they are not my club and they are not paying me, despite those rumblings about financial mischief), but credit where credit is due – this is an impressive team, and an impressive club.
To critique them, they can lack flair. If a team can match them at the breakdown and disrupt their supply of ball they can be a little stilted in attack. For non-purists, they are not always the most enjoyable team to watch. But does that matter? Not when you win, and win as consistently as they do.
Now the question will be, can they back it up? After doing the double in 2016, and lifting the Champions Cup again in Edinburgh in 2017, they crashed out to Exeter in the play-offs the following week, failing to reach the same emotional heights. They have an extra week in their favour this time, with the final round of the Premiership still to play, a home semi-final already secured and a comparatively easy fixture against Worcester Warriors offers a chance to rest some key men.
With this third Champions Cup win in four years, Saracens have confirmed their status as the best English club in European history. They remain a trophy behind Leinster and Toulouse in total, sitting alongside Toulon, however they look like they are just getting started. With Mark McCall at the helm, and new talent emerging from their academy every year to support their brilliant core of players (as well as the odd high-profile signing), they are well placed to be the dominant team in the northern hemisphere for years to come. Now if only we could get a match arranged against the Crusaders…
By Henry Ker