NEWCASTLE, England (Reuters) - Try scorers Sean Maitland and Billy Vunipola will grab the headlines but it was the relentless defensive commitment of the entire squad which carried Saracens to their third European triumph in four years on Saturday.
Defending champions Leinster, who swept the London team aside in last year’s quarter-finals, arrived in Newcastle having lost one of their last 17 games in Europe’s premier competition and surged into an early 10-0 lead in pursuit of an unprecedented fifth title having never lost a final.
Saracens, however, were undaunted.
They overcame a series of setbacks to haul themselves level at halftime and gradually strangled the life out of the normally attack-dominant Irish side with immense physicality and self-belief to triumph 20-10.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a European Cup final a more dominant display against a really good side,” said former England lock-turned TV pundit Ben Kay.
“We know Leinster are happy keeping hold of the ball but they’re not happy when they’re being edged back inch after inch. Saracens had them marching backwards and every time their big carriers got the ball they were enveloped on the gain line and that was the difference between the two teams.”
Saracens captain Brad Barritt led by example as he completed a remarkable 28 tackles, made 54 metres across 16 carries and was deservedly named man of the match.
Billy Vunipola made two key interceptions as well as scoring the decisive try with a barnstorming run, while lock George Kruis turned the early tide with a massive hit on Johnny Sexton.
“It was an incredibly physical performance by Saracens. After losing their two props, the resolve that they showed and that competitive edge that’s got them the titles in the last few years,” said former Leinster and Ireland centre Brian O’Driscoll.
“Sometimes when it’s going against you, you need somebody to take the bull by the horns and George Kruis did that on a number of occasions. He doesn’t always get the plaudits as Maro Itoje is often the stand-out performer but what George Kruis has done defensively today has lent them a big hand in winning the trophy.”
“It was a ferocious match, we never backed down, but Saracens did what they do best,” he said. “Even though we weren’t missing tackles, but they kept pressing us back and steamrolled us at times.”
Saracens were up against it after 29 minutes when they lost both props to injury, had Itoje sent to the sin-bin and trailed 10-0.
Few would have predicted the holders would not score another point.
“My yellow card was all part of the master plan,” Itoje joked. “The team ironically started playing better when I was off the pitch. When things go against us it galvanises us.
“When we’re against the wall that’s when we truly show our character. We needed to up our physicality and our work rate and the rest is history.”
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond