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Leinster Rugby vs Saracens
Champions Cup Quarter-final,
Lansdowne Road, Dublin,
Sunday, 1st April 2018, 15:30

TV: Live on BT Sports

So it's finally here.

This is the game Leinster have been waiting for since they beat Montpellier in January.

Unfortunately Leinster chose to warm up with easily their worst performance of the season. It was only their third defeat of the season but in the other two defeats in Scotland, they could and probably should have won. In Swansea last week though the struggling Ospreys were miles the better team and they both out-muscled and out-played Leinster.

Admittedly Leinster have added a lot of quality players this week but you'd hope it serves as a lesson to the whole squad that it's what you do at the business end of the season that counts. Last season was hugely promising until it all fell apart in the semi-final losses to Clermont and especially at home to the Scarlets. No one will remember that they had a 100% record in the pool if they lose at home in the quarter-finals to Saracens. And of all the teams they could lose to, there are few worse than Saracens.

It's hard to think of a more unpopular rugby team than Saracens. For those who attended the final last year in Edinburgh, it was striking that even the neutral English fans in attendance didn't have a good word to say about them. Years of allegedly cheating the Premiership salary cap and using this to acquire other club's younger players will do that I guess.

Of course they insist they're whiter than white but somehow they've run up a collective debt of 50 million sterling over the last ten years and if it wasn't for a South African sugar daddy propping them up, they'd be bankrupt tomorrow.

But what about Saracens on the pitch? Well they're a fine team and ironically are led by an Irishman in Mark McCall, the former Ulster coach. He started as Brendan Venter's assistant and slowly and quietly took over as head coach. He's had great success in the last few years and yet he's rarely mentioned as a potential successor to Joe Schmidt. His teams are well drilled and he manages the expensively acquired assets well to be fair. Saracens have also brought through young talent in the like of Maro Itoje and Jamie George and though these are undoubtedly fine players it's also worth noting that cheating the salary cap allows extra funds to hoover up young prospects too.

Though they are the defending champions Saracens have not been themselves this season. They've lost a heck of a lot of games this season and in their last fifteen proper competitive games (not counting the Micky Mouse Anglo-Welsh Cup) their record is seven wins, seven losses and one draw. Their nadir this season came on a bizarre Monday evening when they were stuffed 46-14 at home to Clermont in a re-arranged game due to snow.

For all both teams' success in the tournament, they've won five of the last nine trophies between them, the two clubs have only played each other twice in competitive games. This was in the pool stages in the 2010-11 season. Leinster won a tight one in Wembley stadium, a game that was memorable both for a brilliant four-minute defensive stand at the end of the match from Leinster and then Venter's poor attempt at stand-up in the post-match interview. In the return match, Leinster destroyed them 43-20 in the RDS. Among the players that featured that day were a then nineteen year old Owen Farrell.

There has been much speculation this week about Farrell's fitness in the run-up to the match but he's been named to start at out-half. Farrell is a bit of a puzzle. There are many claims on his behalf that he's a world-class ten but that ignores the fact that most of his best work for England has come at inside centre. He's a fine player no doubt in terms of place-kicking, distribution and tackling but his lack of pace holds him back as a running threat and his performance against Ireland recently again showed he's not really a quality international out-half.

It must be said though he does generally play well at ten at club level and he's joined in the starting side by two Lions colleagues in George Kruis and Mako Vunipola. It's a quality team all round with plenty of threats in the forwards and the backs.

For Leinster the big news is that both of Leinster's Six Nations winning locks Devin Toner and James Ryan are selected to start with Scott Fardy switching to number six where he played most of his international rugby for Australia. Dan Leavy comes in at number seven and Jordi Murphy takes the number eight shirt off the injured Jack Conan. Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong come in to start alongside Sean Cronin in the front row.

Johnny Sexton is fit to start at out-half alongside Luke McGrath and skipper Isa Nacewa and Garry Ringrose form a new centre combination. Rob Kearney returns to the full back jersey and 'calamity' James Lowe (so named because of his disastrous defensive options) is selected on the left wing while Fergus McFadden has recovered from early exit last week to take his place on the right wing. Rhys Ruddock is fit enough to be named on the bench.

It's going to be a brutally tough match. Saracens came to the Aviva last season and basically out-powered Munster and they will be looking to do the same again to Leinster. The Saracens gameplan is simple but very effective. Their big carriers take the ball up and their dangerous backs run excellent lines and Farrell is excellent at getting the ball into their hands at the right moment. The genuinely world class Billy Vunipola is a huge loss to them though and they are also more vulnerable in the scrum in the absence of Vincent Koch so Leinster will go after them there.

A lot of the starting forwards involved played in the Ireland - England match two weeks ago, seven from Leinster and four from Saracens. The Sarries players will look to right a wrong, but the Leinster players will take belief from that match that they can dominate them again.

If they do, they should come out the right side of a tight contest.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney 15 Alex Goode
Fergus McFadden 14 Liam Williams
Garry Ringrose 13 Marcelo Bosch
Isa Nacewa (C) 12 Brad Barritt
James Lowe
11 Sean Maitland
Johnny Sexton 10 Owen Farrell
Luke McGrath 9 Richard Wigglesworth

Cian Healy 1 Mako Vunipola
Sean Cronin 2 Jamie George
Tadhg Furlong 3 Juan Figallo
Devin Toner 4 Maro Itoje
James Ryan 5 George Kruis
Scott Fardy 6 Nick Isiekwe
Dan Leavy 7 Schalk Burger
Jordi Murphy 8 Jackson Wray

Replacements James Tracy 16 Schalk Brits
Jack McGrath 17 Richard Barrington
Andrew Porter
18 Titi Lamositele
Rhys Ruddock 19 Dominic Day
Max Deegan 20
Blair Cowan
Nick McCarthy
21 Ben Spencer
Joey Carbery 22 Alex Lozowski
Rory O'Loughlin 23 Chris Wyles

Not Considered
due to Injury
Tom Daly,
Josh van der Flier,
Robbie Henshaw,
Rhys Ruddock,
Caelan Doris,
Cathal Marsh,
Will Connors,
Sean O'Brien,
Dave Kearney,
Noel Reid,
Jack Conan,
Jordan Larmour

Billy Vunipola,
Michael Rhodes,
Vincent Koch,
Will Skelton,
Calum Clark
Officials Referee: Jerome Garces (FRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2018-03-30