Murray Kinsella reports from Newcastle
WHEN NEWCASTLE FALCONS played at St James’ Park for the first time last year, Fijian wing Vereniki Goneva gave a nod to Alan Shearer when he scored a try, raising his right arm to salute the crowd just like the England striker did in his time.
It remains to be seen whether anyone involved in today’s Heineken Champions Cup final between Leinster and Saracens at the Newcastle stadium [KO 5pm, Virgin Media/Channel 4/BT Sport] will mirror Goneva’s tribute to the Newcastle legend but it should prove a memorable venue for what could be the best European final yet.
St James’ Park in Newcastle. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO
Certainly, this is a meeting of two all-time giants of European club rugby.
Four-time winners Leinster can secure a record fifth title, taking them clear of Toulouse, while Mark McCall’s Saracens are targeting their third European crown.
Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell, James Ryan, Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong, Mako Vunipola, Garry Ringrose, Liam Williams – the cast of stars involved in this contest goes on and on.
Some fear that the shuddering physical qualities of these teams and their brilliant defences could make this final difficult to watch, but most people are simply excited at the prospect of two great teams going head-to-head.
With the crowd expected to come close to filling the 52,354 capacity, Leinster have belief that they can earn the fifth star and go back-to-back after their success in another football stadium, Bilbao’s San Mamés, last year.
“We’ll take confidence from coming through a tough pool, we’ll take confidence from some of the challenges we’ve faced along the way this year,” said Leinster captain Johnny Sexton yesterday after getting his bearings on the St James’ Park pitch.
“Ulster really put it up to us in the quarter-final and Toulouse were in the in-form team and we looked after them really well in the semi-final. We’ll take confidence from all of that and we’ll take confidence from winning a trophy last year.
“But it will really come down to who plays best on the day.”
Saracens come into the decider in ominous form, having won all of their games so far in this competition and comfortably dealt with Munster in the semi-final.
Owen Farrell during Saracens’ captain’s run yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
McCall’s men remain stung by the tepid nature of their performance against Leinster in last season’s European quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium, when they were missing some important players through injury but were simply too far off their best.
“There’s certainly a good sense in the team that we’ve had good momentum from the last year,” said Sarries captain Brad Barritt.
“We’ve learned a lot from that defeat to Leinster. The team are in great condition, we had good performances in the quarter-final and the semi-final but we’re aware we need to step it up another level against this Leinster team.”
Alongside Sexton, Leinster boss Leo Cullen said his team haven’t discussed becoming history-makers too often, even if that fifth star is in the back of their minds.
McCall, meanwhile, said nothing much at all – seemingly preferring for his players to do Saracens’ talking on the pitch.
And what a battle awaits on the carpet-like turf today. Saracens have kicked in play more often that Leinster in the competition, while the Irishmen have tended to have more possession.
But in most areas, these sides are exceptionally well-matched.
Sexton versus Farrell has been widely discussed but the real key could be the other creative players around them.