Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Keego on...Saracens' Everest

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With the countdown to the Heineken Champions Cup final beginning in earnest this week let’s have a 2 week run in to the match.  This week let’s look at the psychological battle that will take place in Newcastle between Leinster and Newcastle. 
Psychology first because the teams have a lot of rugby to play before the final and with it being a one off final, form isn’t as important. 
So with a quick look at the season so far. 
Saracens sit second by a mile in the Gallagher’s Premiership. Exeter sit atop the league with 81 points after 20 games, Sarries sit snugly at 72 points. 15 wins 5 losses, scored 577 points (70 tries) and conceded 402 (39 tries).  They are +175 in points difference so far. So the first point is that they have scored less tries than the league leaders, 12 less tries also conceding 4 less tries. The interesting thing about the English league is that Exeter is in charge and in charge by a margin, but in Europe the roles are reversed. Exeter is not a threat in Europe. Why is that? 
Have Saracens decided to coast in the league to aim at Europe? How very un-English of them. I think Saracens see the Champions Cup as a massive piece of creating a rugby dynasty. Leinster already has 4 of those stars, to be talked about in the same breath then Saracens must reach the next odd number in stars. 
In terms of the game plan, it appears that they work through a triangle of players. Farrell, Itoje and Mako. Are their playmakers. They have class all over the pitch but those players are the ones who run the show. There is a massive gap between the backups for these players and so the pressure to keep them on the pitch is massive. While they may be aiming more at Europe they want to compete at home. Workload and managing players is the big worry. If they can get the above 3 on the pitch come final day, they will be confident. A confident Saracens side is dangerous! But, imagine if one of those players doesn’t make the final, how does that affect the mind-set of the team?
So let’s move to Leinster and have a look at how they have gotten on so far this season. 
Psychologically speaking it has been a season of ups and downs. The ups preceded the 6 nations and then the slight downs followed. Players where slowly brought back into the fold, and the team was blooding new players. While doing that, the results didn’t go the team’s way. This is where the management team have earned their crust. The heads have been kept up, even in the face of a lack of momentum. For me, while never worried, there were a few head scratching moments up until the Glasgow game. Even with a loss against Glasgow, Leinster where starting to put the game together for Toulouse. Big phase plays and the old Leinster-Jitzu style or strangling the positivity out of the opposition. It didn’t work on the day but the signs where good. Rolling into the Toulouse game it was the most positive I had been in a while. The game plan that was germinating (my biology teacher would be proud of this reference) against Glasgow was blooming into a beanstalk against Toulouse. So this means that the tough times built stronger players. A great sign. A great thing to be able to look at your team mates, whatever the configuration, and know they have been in the trenches with you. Saracens don’t have that. Leo and Stuart have built this from the under 19’s up. 
Leinster has players that must take the field also. Furlong, Sexton, Ryan and Kearney. The spine built along the team is massively important. Yes like Sarries there is class everywhere but the spine is what holds the body together.  Furlong looks healthy after a knee scare a couple of weeks ago, Sexton was back to his mature and dominant best against Toulouse, Ryan is superman and Kearney has been written off more times that Harold Bishop in Neighbours (an old reference), but bounces back with the shark eyes in ready to take a bite. He has been immense in his years in rugby. Have a think about any other player who has been around as long as he has and performed in big matches like that! There aren’t many.
So where does that leave the Leinster head going into the 2 weeks prep for the final? Well, far healthier than 3 weeks ago. When the go to plays start working, when they see the opposition wilting under the pressure that feeds the confidence. 
Saracens have confidence too, but they haven’t been through a slump, they don’t know if they can get through a slump, they don’t know if they can navigate the game against a team with 4 stars. They haven’t done it, and until they do, it remains Everest.
Leinster is Everest!    

@nkeegan on twitter and www.thecouchpunditireland.com for more. 

Keego (@nkeegan): Blogger, professional wrestler, sometime attempted rugby player (@TheThirsty3rds), professional procrastinator and attempted musician with a fondness for long walks on the bar, tea and the couch. Opinionated Leinster fan and constant gardener.

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019