REPORT: Leinster 30 Saracens 19
REPORT: Leinster 30 Saracens 19
April 1, 2018 / Dave Mervyn
A thunderous third-quarter surge, during which they rattled off 17 unanswered points, launched Leinster Rugby into the Champions Cup semi-finals as they knocked out last year’s champions Saracens in a memorable 30-19 victory at Aviva Stadium.
Converted tries from man-of-the-match Dan Leavy (46 minutes) and James Lowe (57) had Leo Cullen’s men almost out of reach, and although replacement Blair Cowan’s maul try gave Sarries some hope, Leinster were able to see out a deserved win which sets up a last-four date with the Scarlets in Dublin over the weekend of 21st/22nd April.
Garry Ringrose’s superbly-crafted third-minute try put the province on course for a 13-12 half-time lead, with Saracens making it a one-point game courtesy of three penalties from Owen Farrell and one from halfway by Marcelo Bosch. Johnny Sexton kicked Leinster’s other first-half points.
Sexton, who finished with 13 points, kept up his 100% record with a long-range penalty and the conversions of Leavy’s terrific try, which exhibited James Ryan’s deft hands and the flanker’s pace off the mark, and a poacher’s effort from Lowe – his seventh try in nine starts.
Cowan replied for the English kingpins but Leinster’s defensive pressure prevented any further scores, even with Devin Toner in the sin-bin for the final five minutes. It means they will contest their third Champions Cup semi-final in four seasons.
Roared on by the vast majority of the capacity crowd, Leinster unlocked the visitors’ defence in the opening minutes. They went wide from just outside their 22 as Lowe broke a tackle from Liam Williams and the supporting Isa Nacewa put the foot down to create a two-on-one and send Ringrose in behind the posts. Sexton converted for a 7-0 lead.
Saracens had a strong spell in response, using their forwards to gain consistent ground and work some space out wide for Sean Maitland. Leinster leaked a penalty close to their line, allowing Farrell to split the posts. He added a second one on the quarter hour mark after Ringrose was whistled up for an infringement on the deck.
Sexton pushed Leinster into double figures with a well-struck 20th-minute penalty, following some ground-gaining carries by Sean Cronin and Leavy, but another period of possession and collision-winning earned a third successful place-kick from Farrell in the 26th minute.
Richard Wigglesworth failed to wrap his arms in a challenge on Sexton, getting away with just a penalty, and Leinster’s pack took advantage of the territory, winning a maul penalty before Cian Healy got his side of the scrum up and the Leavy-led pressure on Jackson Wray, off the base, resulted in a turnover. Having got within range of the try-line, a Sarries offside allowed Sexton to make it 13-9.
However, Sexton was penalised for kicking the ball away before the restart and Argentinian centre Bosch stepped up, from halfway, to immediately claw back those three points. Saracens had two late lineout opportunities just before the interval, but Ryan got up well to disrupt and Scott Fardy was first to the loose ball.
Healy was the victim of a high tackle in the second half’s early exchanges, and although a fleet-footed break from Rob Kearney promised more than three points, Sexton was able to slot the 42nd-minute penalty from long range to restore the four-point gap – 16-12.
It got even better for the home support a few minutes later when lock Ryan led an attack out of the home 22. Ringrose threaded an excellent kick to touch, five metres out from Sarries’ whitewash. The visitors were able to kick clear through Wigglesworth but Leinster struck a couple of phases later, a clever interchange between Leavy and Ryan exploiting space at the side of a ruck as the in-form openside took the return pass, darted through and evaded Maro Itoje’s tackle to dot down under the posts.
Sexton’s straightforward conversion nudged the lead out to 23-12, and a bone-crunching tackle by Tadhg Furlong on Mako Vunipola soon led to a Leinster penalty in their own half. Further breaks from talismanic captain Nacewa and Leavy had Saracens scrambling in defence, but they forced a knock-on at the end of 22 breathless phases.
The third try duly arrived just before the hour mark, Ryan again building momentum with a powerful carry and Jordi Murphy and Sexton’s attacking of the blindside had Sarries hanging on close to their line. The pressure told when Lowe came in on a hard line, kept his feet and the drive took him over, the New Zealander doing really well to stretch and ground the ball successfully.
With Sexton receiving treatment, Fergus McFadden added the extras, yet Saracens were able to hit back due to the impact of their bench. One of their replacements, back rower Cowan, touched down under a pile of bodies from a well-executed 63rd-minute lineout maul. Farrell converted from wide on the right to reduce the arrears to 11 points.
Rhys Ruddock made a welcome return in blue for the final quarter of an hour – his first appearance since suffering a hamstring injury away to Exeter Chiefs in December. Young half-backs Nick McCarthy (23) and Joey Carbery (22) and 21-year-old Champions Cup debutant Max Deegan also came on to help Leinster hold Sarries at arm’s length.
Mark McCall’s charges made the hosts fight all the way, but the men in blue kept coming up with big moments in defence. Toner’s tackle on Farrell forced a knock-on, Leavy got in to win turnover ball a few minutes later and, with Nacewa continuing to play a key role, Leinster kept their line intact with Sarries guilty of crossing.
Although Toner’s outstretched boot gave away a penalty and a yellow card, 14-man Leinster were able to end the game in possession and in control of field position. Their swarming defence led to another couple of knock-ons from Saracens, one by George Kruis off a close-in maul near the right corner and another after Mako Vunipola had slipped through in midfield.
The home side kicked downfield, pressed again and from a late scrum with Ruddock at lock and Lowe at flanker, they wound down the clock before McCarthy booted the ball dead and the jubilant Leinster fans savoured the prospect of hosting Scarlets in a mouth-watering Celtic clash in three weeks’ time.