The quarter finals of the Champions Cup are imminent, kicking off on Saturday evening with the first clash which sees Leinster hosting Saracens at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Life is good for Leinster at present – the Irishmen’s hands barely off the Pro 14 trophy as they take the field. However, with Saracens having no hope in this year’s Gallagher Premiership, all their attention and effort will be poured into this Champions Cup campaign.
What gives this particular encounter an added dash of spice is the recent history between these two foes, as far as this competition in concerned. With each set-piece, with each backline move, each rampaging forward charge, each blue-clad shoulder thumping into a Saracen’s midriff, Leinster will be preoccupied with and hunting the goal of revenge.
Conditions were good on 11 May 2019 when Johnny Sexton hoisted the ball into the smoky air to catalyse a bruising contest between Leinster and Saracens which would ultimately bestow the title of Champions of Europe on the victors.
In front of 51 000 fans, both teams were fired up and confident, but as the meaty arm of Billy Vunipola stretch over the try-line in the 66th minute, the Irishmen’s fate was sealed as runners-up before Springbok prop Vincent Koch hoofed the ball into touch to bring finality to the 20-10 scoreline.
The image of the smiles on the faces of the elated Saracens outfit that day will only fuel the resolve of Leo Cullen’s troops come Saturday.
Saracens, meanwhile, are looking in fairly decent shape, having posted four wins from the last seven rounds since the continuation of the Premiership after the coronavirus-imposed hiatus. Most notably, Sarries pulled a victory from the fiery contest that was played out between them and Exeter Chiefs, although, admittedly, both sides elected to rest a number of high-ranking individuals with the Champions Cup in mind.
Sarries’ main concern ahead of kick-off will be devising a plan to breach the blue wall of defence which has seen off wave after wave of attack this season. As Mark McCall and his staff would have noted in the Pro 14 final, attacking out wide against Leinster will be a limited option as Garry Ringrose and co. have honed closing down space into a fine art. On top of that, Leinster swarm on defence; each players display familiarity in terms of strategy, their communication is clear and precise, their opponents are hit back in the tackle.
A particularly impressive string in the Leinster defence bow is their shrewdness at ruck time; their decisions on when to commit players and when to fan out are nigh-on perfect. In the final, for example, while Ulster routinely committed three or four players to a ruck, there was often not a blue jersey to be seen – unless, of course, the chance of a turnover was there – meaning that there were often twelve or eleven Ulster attackers running at 15 eager Leinster defenders.
With the battle lines drawn, the match has all the makings of a great spectacle, with Saracens’ motivation to defend their title pitted against Leinster’s desire to earn it for themselves after coming so close last year. Roll on Saturday!