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11th May 2019

Billy Vunipola’s last crusade sends Leinster to temple of doom

Patrick McCarry


Saracens are the 2018/19 champions of Europe, and no-one in Newcastle is arguing that they were full value for their victory

Billy Vunipola, Will Skelton, Brad Barritt and Liam Williams were all superb for the English side but Leinster will look back and rue a poor decision right before half-time that cost them a hard-earned lead.

Saracens had reached the final by completely outgunning Munster and running them to dust. Munster fans were disgusted that Sarries ran roughshod over the offside line and were allowed to do so by Jerome Garces.

Garces was the referee for the final and he offered all Leinster fans hope by pinging Billy Vunipola for an early offside. Both sides were climbing into each other and the hits could be heard from high up in the stands.

Leinster went 3-0 ahead through a Johnny sexton penalty and then we had 25 minutes of sheer brutality that was brutal and absorbing. Cian Healy thumped into Billy Vunipola and Robbie Henshaw made a great poach. Luke McGrath, who was lively and dangerous, swatted the ball out of Alex Goode’s grasp as he threatened up the left wing.

Haymakers were coming from all angles and Saracens looked to be forcing their will on the game until, twice in 10 minutes, Leinster’s backs sparked the game into life. First, Jordan Larmour shrugged off Billy Vunipola and blitzed up the right wing before finding Garry Ringrose in support.

Sarries survived that incision but, soon after Brad Barritt had blown a good scoring opportunity by bombing into the breakdown, they would not be so fortunate. Rob Kearney produced a devastating line break and rode a couple of tackles, twisting and turning as the tryline loomed. He was held up short but Saracens were illegal squared and Garces signalled for a penalty.

Cian Healy thought he scored but the TMO disagreed. Salve for Leinster came in the way of Maro Itoje being sin-binned both props – Titi Lamositele and Mako Vunipola – going off with injuries.

Jack Conan and Sean O’Brien went close, off the back of a wheeled scrum, but it was Tadhg Fulong that got the ball down, shunting two Sarries players back in the hefty process.

Sexton converted and it was 10-0, but that is where Saracens roared back. Big hits from Alex Lozowski then George Kruis won them a penalty that Owen Farrell converted. Then, Luke McGrath failed to kick the ball dead for half-time. Sarries ploughed forward in waves and made him, and Leinster, pay.

The forwards drew in bodies and a looped pass saw Sean Maitland glide in unopposed. Farrell converted and we were level again. HALF-TIME: Leinster 10-10 Saracens.

Garry Ringrose in action against Maro Itoje of Saracens during the Champions Cup Final. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

Sexton looked set, for all money, to score a try in the opening 10 minutes of the half and especially when Cian Healy went beast mode up the right wing. It took some superb defence from Liam Williams – with some grey-area refereeing from Garces – to save Sarries’ skin and deny the Blues.

Healy, who was having a brilliant game, then won Leinster another huge turnover, just outside his 22, and Leinster regrouped.

Saracens’ big runners were making front-foot gains with just about every carry and they thought they had touched down by the base of the post. Again, TV replays were inconclusive. Scott Fardy was sin-binned for offside and Farrell opted to kicked his side 13-10 ahead, rather than go for the try.

Billy Vunipola then changed the outcome of the game with two clutch moments. First up, he picked off a Sexton pass to secure a vital turnover. Sarries marched back up the pitch and had Leinster in a whole heap of trouble just outside their tryline.

Leinster were in danger of getting scrummaged over the line. They gave away one penalty and committed bodies to the next put-in. That gave Vunipola the opening and he took off from the back of the scrum.

James Lowe, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath and Johnny Sexton all tried to stop him. All failed. Farrell converted and it was 20-10 with 12 minutes to go.

Leinster simply could not get out of their half in the final 10 minutes as, completely spent, Saracens drove home their superiority.

OUR MAN OF THE MATCH: Billy Vunipola (Saracens)