Hawkeye Sidekick

European Rugby Champions Cup: Leinster Rugby vs. Saracens Reflections

On the day that Leinster Rugby paid a fitting tribute to the service of retiring player Jamie Heaslip prior to this contest, Leinster Rugby strode into the last four of this competition with a performance full of craft, nous and work rate. Hawkeye Sidekick bows his hat to appreciate the effort.

Energy On Point

The Leinster Rugby loss to Ospreys in Guinness Pro 14 action a week prior to this fixture threw up a couple of questions for me. Was the performance which lacked intensity and work rate from Leinster Rugby a prelude to this European Cup fixture?

No need to worry as Leinster Rugby’s first team charges came back in and produced a powerful performance. This was such a compelling performance for a number of levels from Leinster Rugby. Playing against the breeze in the opening period. Leinster Rugby absorbed Saracens pack advances and were clinical when the try scoring opportunity arose as well as the two penalties presented during this half.

The front five efforts in this opening period extremely on point. The front row of Healy, Cronin and Furlong provided a platform in the set piece but their work rate around the fringes and open play were far superior to the Saracens front row unit. Furlong in particular smashing any Saracens to the ground with interest. The work rate never ceased for the whole game.

Leinster fast uptempo game plan too much for Saracens

The opening exchanges gave us a glimpse of how this contest would go. Saracens trying to bludgeon their way to the try line while Leinster Rugby employed the chop tackle to full effect to negate the big ball carriers in the Saracens pack. Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje struggling to make an impression with ball in hand. The tactic from Leinster Rugby forced Saracens to change tact even before they had a platform created and a lead established.

There were questions why Leinster Rugby acquired James Lowe last year from some quarters? There was a multitude of players in the squad (Irish born) who could fill the wing position but it was games like yesterday where Lowe comes into his own and was signed for.

James Lowe was simply outstanding yesterday. The New Zealander scored a superb try and his quick passing exchange with Isa Nacewa who was also sensational setting Garry Ringrose free to score Leinster’s first try. The try was borne out of relentless efficient clear out work at ruck time to setup a high tempo game for McGrath and Sexton to execute. The opening try came from these facets of play and Saracens had no answers to the speed of pass coming at them on the outside.

Nice blend of youth and experience with Leinster

This was a performance which should strike fear to all other teams still left in this competition. Leinster Rugby’s leaders delivered but the youth in the ranks were also key contributors too. James Ryan in the second row was excellent throughout, constantly putting up the hand with his ball carrying duties and his tackle count / work rate were sublime.

Itoje struck a frustrated figure and his indiscipline was borne out of the fact that Ryan was in the ascendancy. Ryan was ably assisted by Devin Toner who collectively called an efficient line out performance with Cronin. Fardy at six was abrasive throughout and provided quality line out options throughout.

Dan Leavy’s profile continues to soar; the seven was a wrecking ball in the breakdown battle and after Ryan’s quick hands identifying space inside to cross over for the decisive second try of the contest for Leinster Rugby. The ability of Ryan and Leavy to engineer the score, realizing the space and the lack of defensive support from Itoje in the line was key; exciting play.

Luke McGrath continues to impress at nine. His kick game was on point and his passing from the ruck to Sexton gave the out-half the time required to unleash his three quarters. Nacewa was ridiculously good again, his versatility and adaptability to fill seamlessly in the Leinster back line seen again yesterday. Leadership, defensive nous and ball carried incredibly well.

Ringrose gave Barritt and Bosch the run around at times from an attacking perspective and his defensive solidity meant that Saracens primary go forward ball carrier Barritt was reduced to a peripheral figure in this contest. The fact that Saracens key ball carriers Vunipola, Itoje and Barritt were negated in the opening period that Saracens had to adopt a more expansive game plan in the second half was always going to yield unforced errors.

Leinster Rugby’s thorough professional performance was doing a Saracens on Saracens. Saracens were forced to chase the game from very early and the game was up for the reigning champions well before the final whistle. Leinster Rugby could have won by more truth be told but they were content to consolidate in the fourth quarter. Emphatic win!

Saracens physicality tactic misses the mark

The ruffling up of Sexton by Saracens was no surprise but the tactic did not yield any success. Wigglesworth on another day should have being sent to the sin bin, late hit on Sexton in full view of Garces who only issued a penalty. It was not the only incident of this nature but Sexton continued to play his game and Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard as Saracens’ penalty count started to increase.

As the game wore on, it looked to me that Saracens pack were increasingly getting frustrated and unsettled as they realized that Leinster Rugby’s pack were holding them at bay and allowing a platform to be built. Itoje’s penalty count on the day was evidence of this; indiscipline after the opening quarter.

Leinster march on ominously

The performance level from Leinster Rugby was at a different level to anything that was produced this weekend. Leinster Rugby’s performance with or without the ball has issued a massive call out to Scarlets, Racing 92 and Munster Rugby to try and beat them.

Their defensive coverage all game was on point. There is no weak point in this side and when you consider that the likes of Sean O’Brien and Jordan Larmour will be back for the semi-final, it is an exciting prospect for Leinster fans to look forward to. A fixture which Leinster Rugby won with minimal fuss, no drama, the game was over after the third quarter. Mission accomplished. Roll on three weeks!