Champions Cup: Saracens vs Leinster the real European final of two rugby heavyweights at the top of their game

The two teams that have been at the forefront of European rugby have never met in the showcase final. That changes on Saturday, but there can only be one winner

Sam Peters
Friday 10 May 2019 14:54
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Johnny Sexton expects tough Champions Cup final between Leinster and Saracens

This is the European final that was meant to be. While Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur shocked the footballing world this week by reaching the Champions League final, rugby has the European final we craved all along.

Boring? Not a bit of it.

Six of the last 10 European Champions Cups have been won by one of these two teams but they have yet to meet in the final.

On Saturday, all that changes.

Europe’s two heavyweights go head to head at St James’ Park as defending champions Leinster take on two-time winners Saracens, who remain the only unbeaten team in the competition and start as narrow favourites to make it three Champions Cup crowns in four years.

Leinster have lifted the trophy four times themselves in the last decade and know what it takes to deliver on the biggest stage. Saracens are the form horse in the tournament.

It is, in so many ways, the perfect final.

Last year Leinster beat Saracens at the quarter-final stage on their way to lifting the trophy but the north London outfit are in better shape this season, minus the draining pre-season baggage of a British and Irish Lions tour, while the defending champions have not quite hit their straps on route to this year’s final.

That could all change on Saturday but Mark McCall’s Saracens travel to Newcastle in almost perfect nick, not least in the shape of slim-downed former Wallaby lock, Will Skelton, and with one of European rugby’s hottest properties on the wing, Liam Williams.

Liam Williams is one of the form players in Europe that will take to the biggest stage on Saturday against Leinster

The former Scarlet has been sensational in his first two seasons at Allianz Park, playing a key role in this year’s push to the final, as well as Wales’s glorious Grand Slam campaign. If a Lions XV were to be picked tomorrow, Williams would be among the first names on the team-sheet.

“We’ve had a great run in the Champions Cup this year and we’ve played well,” Williams told The Independent.

“We’ve got a home semi-final in the Premiership as well and it would be great to end the year on a high.

“There’s a lot of confidence around Saracens. Leinster have been playing well all tournament and were really good against Toulouse in their semi-final. It’s going to be a big ask but if one team can beat them it’s us. I think we owe them one from last year.”

Streamlined Will Skelton has been one of the revelations of the season 

Williams starts on the right wing on Saturday with Alex Goode at full-back and Sean Maitland on the left wing as Saracens look for a repeat of their performance in the semi-final, when they comprehensively outplayed two-time champions, Munster.

Greatness awaits this current crop of Saracens stars if they can deliver what has felt inevitable all season; a third Champions Cup success in four years.

With an academy continuing to churn out high-class talent, including outstanding prospects Max Malins, Matt Gallagher and Dom Morris, who must all settle for a place watching the game from the stands on Saturday, the club’s future success seems assured.

But for now, Johnny Sexton’s Leinster stand in the way of yet another title for McCall and his men.

Williams’ role, along with Goode and Maitland, will be pivotal in defusing the aerial bombardment Sexton is sure to instigate but on the evidence of the past two years only Israel Folau can hold a candle to the Welshman when it comes to his work in the air.

His performance against England in Cardiff in February prompted no less a figure than Barry John to describe him as the “best full back in the world” and such is his all-round excellence it is hard to think of a more complete three-quarter in the game.

“I’m just doing my job,” Williams said. “I came here to play really big games and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working really hard, week in and week out on the training pitch, and it’s all paying off. I’m really exciting about the end of the season now.

“I didn’t need much convincing to come here to be honest. Saracens have been world class for a few years now and they were back-to-back European Champions in the years before I came. What more motivation do you need to come to a club?

“Signing for Saracens was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Johnny Sexton will lead Leinster in their Champions Cup final against Saracens

Owen Farrell’s battle with Ireland’s Sexton will be pivotal with the England man getting one over his British and Irish Lions team-mate when the pair met in the Six Nations.

All over the field there will be epic encounters in what promises to be one of the great European finals.

This is the final we all expected and the one many wanted.

Boring? Not a bit of it.

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