By Phil Rice
It is rare that the two best teams in a cup competition both actually make it to the final, but it is generally accepted that Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final will be contested by the top two European club sides.
Holders Leinster face Saracens, who won the trophy back to back in 2016 and 2017, at St. James Park, Newcastle (5pm).
There are so many international players in both sides that this is a Test match in all but name.
“It is probably the final everyone wanted,” said Richard Wigglesworth, the Saracens and England scrum half.
The only player likely to be in Leinster’s match day squad who is not an international is James Lowe, who is a potential match-winner for the Irish side. While Saracens fielded 13 internationals in their semi-final against Munster.
Saracens were mighty impressive in that semi-final and if they repeat that form at Leinster will have to be at their very best to beat them.
The Dublin side were less than brilliant against Ulster in their semi-final and were indeed lucky to win as Jacob Stockdale dropped the ball in the act of scoring what would almost certainly have been the winning try.
But Leinster have raised their performance when required in the past and if they hit top form this could be one of the best finals in years.
The two clubs have 16 Lions between them and the standard of play is likely to be very high. Both teams play an attritional style and the pace and intensity of the play will probably be off the charts.
Saracens success is based around grinding their opponents down with their large physical pack and then they pile on the points in the final quarter. They blew a strong Glasgow side away in the quarter finals using these tactics.
Their opponents feel they are in with a chance with 20 minutes to go and then Saracens step up their game another notch and dispatch their opposition.
Leinster will be well prepared for this onslaught and their first-choice team have had a two week break so they should be fresh and their strategy well-rehearsed.
Both teams have a strong bench so the final 20 minutes will be hotly contested. Leinster will be aware of Saracens ability to finish strongly and they will understand the need to have built a lead after 60 minutes.
There is a contrast in the style of the two teams. Leinster are a possession team who build their phases and probe for scoring opportunities, whereas Saracens tend to use the boot more frequently and play for territory and depend on their big pack of forwards to grind down the opposition.
Leinster have an impressive front five too and the battle between James Ryan, Leinster’s player of the year, and Maro Itoje in the second-row will be fascinating.
Many feel they will form the Lions second row in the years to come. Both are strong ball carriers and they set the standard for modern second rows with their exceptional mobility and handling skills.
Leinster have played some beautiful rugby en route to this weekend’s Champions Cup final 😍pic.twitter.com/jzJFU88Ibs
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) May 8, 2019
There are so many outstanding individual contests that form sub plots to the overall game.
The battle of the fly-halves, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell may well determine the outcome of the game. Both dictate the style and flow of the game for their team and both are fiercely determined.
Mako Vunipola outplayed Tadhg Furlong in the England v Ireland game this year and the Wexford farmer will want to prove a point this week.
They both formed the cornerstones of the Lions pack in New Zealand and are generally considered the finest in their positions in world rugby.
The teams met in last season’s quarter final at the Aviva and Leinster won that comfortably but Saracens had a poor season last year by their high standards and have substantially improved this year.
🎼 The heartbeats, the conductors, the play-makers, the game-breakers 🎼
Glory for @leinsterrugby‘s talisman? 👑
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) May 8, 2019
Many of the players were involved when England humbled Ireland at the Aviva in the Six Nations this year and the Irish players will want revenge after that forgettable experience.
The game may well be won on place kicks in the end and both kickers have high percentage success rates. Jerome Garces is the referee in charge and games often have a high penalty count when he is in charge.
The bookies can’t separate the two teams and the stage is set for a potentially outstanding match between two exceptional teams.
St James Park hasn’t had too much excitement this football season, but they can expect a thriller this week.