Hawkeye Sidekick

Heineken Champions Cup Final Preview

Five key questions ahead of this final encounter

The semi-final fixtures spoke volumes. Despite Toulouse and Munster Rugby’s best efforts, it was futile as the the two best teams in the competition secured their places in the final with convincing victories. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at five key question where this eagerly anticipated fixture will be won or lost.

Question 1: Back Row Battle

The back row battle will be intense and the opening moments of this contest from the officiating crew will determine how this game will be played. Garces in the semi-final did not officiate the breakdown area and Saracens took full advantage by swarming the ruck area and causing massive issues for Conor Murray and Munster Rugby to create anything worthwhile.

Wray and Rhodes were immense in these exchanges and Leinster Rugby have been duly warned. Billy Vunipola was his marauding best creating quality ball for Owen Farrell to orchestrate and game management with excellent efficiency.

The loss of Dan Leavy for Leinster Rugby is a massive blow but can the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan stifle the breakdown counter rucking of Saracens. This is a huge facet to this fixture.

Question 2: Kicking Game

Saracens were clinically ruthless in their kicking game against Munster Rugby. From minute one, Owen Farrell peppered Munster Rugby’s back three with challenging aerial bombs. Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam were isolated more than once and this created key early territorial gains for Saracens which worked the Munster Rugby tackle count to exhaustion.

A similar tactic will be expected this weekend but the Leinster Rugby back three potentially of Lowe, Kearney and Byrne should have the street smarts to deal with the threat and potentially launch solid counter attacks if space arises. Leinster Rugby must be incredibly strong under the high ball in these opening exchanges.

Question 3: Lineout Battle

The two best line out set piece operators are in the final. Jamie George has been outstanding for Saracens this season in this competition; the assurance in his throwing coupled with the decisive set piece calls of George Kruis and Maro Itoje have provided the Gallagher Premiership with guaranteed quality ball to work with.

Leinster Rugby have question marks on the hooker position. Will Leinster Rugby look to recall Sean Cronin or go with James Tracy who impressed against Toulouse last time out? Cronin’s line out execution has being under the spotlight this season and Saracens will look to target Leinster Rugby early albeit the reigning champions have James Ryan, Scott Fardy options. The quality of throwing and the precision in the line out calls is going to be huge.

Question 4: Barritt fitness

The fitness of Brad Barritt will be a key talking point prior and during this final contest. Barritt is so uber consistent in his performance on both sides of the ball but his defensive abilities and organization set the tone for his colleagues to follow. Barritt left it all on the line against Munster Rugby last time out as the Irish province failed to get anything going in the wide channels.

Barritt departed at the break but his impact was immense. His ankle injury will be duly noted and can Leinster Rugby’s three quarters expose any injury impact here? Ringrose’s mobility could be huge in potentially securing go forward ball.

Question 5: Sexton vs. Farrell

It is the key match for the media hoards this weekend. Johnny Sexton vs. Owen Farrell. Sexton was outstanding in the Toulouse semi-final win as his pack provided the platform to impress with ball in hand. Owen Farrell similarly was outstanding for Saracens against Munster Rugby. His tenacity and work rate was of a leader in the side; his tackle on Haley to secure a vital opening half penalty was evidence of this.

Both players will be eager to launch their back lines early doors but the game management and kicking game from both needs to be there to keep their opponent off balance. An intriguing match up; both will look to bring game to the gain line, expect fireworks.

Verdict:

For me this final comes down to the pack battle. I have been so impressed by both sides this season in this competition. The front five battle in the scrum will be epic. Both possess game winners in this set piece alone. Both sides will look to be defensively solid and how both sides play Garces will be key.

The nod for me goes with Leinster Rugby still. They are the reigning champions in this competition and until someone knocks them off their perch, they are favorites. Saracens overall game plan has massively evolved but if Leinster Rugby pack can stifle the platform of Saracens early, then there are potent weapons for the reigning champions to win this.

I am expecting fireworks early doors, will predict Garces loses control of this encounter in the opening quarter and a flashpoint will not be far away if both sides attack the breakdown as ferocious as I expect. It is a final for composure and cool heads at critical times and I suspect Leinster Rugby will prevail if only just.