Here we go!
The biggest game of the season is hours away. The teams have been named and I haven’t been this excited to watch 30 fellas run around in shorts since…………… well that is private and for another blog
Leinster welcome the scalp they want in Saracens to the Aviva this weekend and Saracens arrive hunting silverware that will give the figurative middle finger to their detractors. This is set up to be some game.
Starting with Saracens. Yes, they are guilty of financial doping, yes they cheated, but, let’s put that to one side and look at the team. Even taking out Farrell (who took himself out) there is still a team (not quite a squad like last year, more on that later) that should be respected. This is their final, regardless of what it says in the program.
Both teams are coming in with form on their side since the lockdown. Saracens with only 1 loss while Leinster have a clean sweep of all they have faces. Even in the loss, Saracens looked good and facing a loss galvanizes the system. Tasting defeat is almost as important as tasting a perfect season. You don’t want to taste the former and you don’t want to lose the shot at the latter. This is another beautiful psychological battle both teams are waging within themselves, as we get closer to the game.
I can feel the adrenaline moving around my body just thinking about this game.
So let’s look at a few numbers ahead of the game.
Saracens come in after a win against Exeter, winning 40-17. Scoring all the way from minute 5 to minute 76. They ran 80 more meters, had 53% possession for 56% territory, missed 15 of 147 tackles while forcing Exeter into action 176 times. Conceding 10 penalties to Exeter 16. Set piece wise they had 1 lineout stolen with 100% scrum.
The interesting number from Saracens is that they didn’t have 1 player with 100 meters in the boots. They had 12 players in the double digits for meters run, showing they like to keep the ball and challenge from all angles. This is something that Leinster haven’t faced this year and certainly not since lockdown.
I understand that both teams had their eyes on this week, the personnel will change but the principles will not. Saracens will run from everywhere at a blue wall.
Leinster come in after a demolition job on an Ulster side who haven’t been their usual selves since lockdown. They opened well but where eventually strangled by Leinster. However, not before throwing a few spanners in the works.
The score finished 27-5 in the final of the Pro14.
Leinster ran for 307 meters (less than Sarries against Exeter), 42% possession for 46% territory, missed 14 of 214 tackles, forced Ulster into action 184 times and conceded 10 penalties. In the set piece, there was 100% return in the scrum but 4 leaked lineouts.
Leinster have not been out of third gear yet, they have not been tested or near tested by any team so far. That is something that weighs on Leinster supporters minds. If Ulster could have put up more of a scrap last week that would mean that Leinster have had their bumps and bruises ahead of what will be a combative game this weekend. The opposite and positive way to think about that is that they have been so good; no one has been able to land a shot.
So let’s talk about the lineout. Kelleher has been unfairly singled out as the cause; Cronin replaces him this weekend, which may dent his confidence a bit. Of the 4 lost lineouts, 2 where badly timed throws and 2 where badly handled by the players in the lineout. You can bet that Saracens are licking their lips at the thought of challenging that lineout, even to the point where I can see them kicking to touch early to get their hands on the lineout. Nugget has a big day ahead of him.
For me, the big battle will be in the second row. Ryan and Toner performed like a big unit last weekend against Henderson and O’Connor. This week they have Swinson and the mighty Itoje, who has turned himself around brilliantly in the last 24 months or so. No longer a card machine and now a leader. This will be a fantastic battle.
Cullen and Lancaster have gone with a backrow of Conan, Dorris and Connors. They can’t pick a bad back row can they? With the players they have. I thought that the job JVDF did on Burns last week might have put him in the 7 shirt but there is no arguing with the selection. The backrow may as well wear check shirts because they will be chopping down trees all day like lumberjacks.
The benches are key again. Leinster have the stronger bench this time around. Kelleher will relish every second he gets on the pitch to set things right, Baird is there too ready to rumble, JVDF changes every game he plays in along with Gibson-Park, Byrne and O’Loughlin. A fantastic bench of game changers
As we come to the end this week, it is great to see so many Irish players in an Irish province, that is not a shot at anyone, which is just something that is important to see.
So how will it finish. I woke up this week feeling a bit over confident. As we get closer, I am just slightly confident. If Leinster can start well, start big and put Saracens on the defensive and get the scoreboard ticking over, I feel it is theirs to win.
If Leinster start off allowing Sarries to run at them, then it will be a long day for us all.
I picked Leinster by 7 on Monday, and I am sticking with that.
When you come at the kings
Best not miss