Ye gods, we had forgotten what a sport this was. Amongst the moonshots, algorithms and trips to Barnard Castle, a few things have slipped from our collective consciousness. On Saturday afternoon, propelled by the winds whipping through the Aviva, they came flooding back. Shame on us for forgetting how good European rugby could be, shame on us for thinking Saracens were a spent force, shame on us for forgetting that the English have a curious rugby hold over their Irish cousins.
For neutrals, the game presented quite the dichotomy. Leinster with all their royal blue resilience and power; boringly efficient and unwaveringly present; omni-conquering Pro14 champions; sometimes without seemingly ever hitting top gear. Insatiable, unflappable, unbeatable Leinster: we don’t want them to win.
And yet, Saracens? Just to say the name oscillates the brow. Their vexing red and black of overspend and brotherhood, of high hits and badly-named business ventures and howling into the wind when others made mistakes. The double-dipping, double-punished, double-champions of ‘everyone hates us but we don’t care’. Nope. Not them either.
But you know who dislikes these teams even more? The other. So what fun it should be to see them turn inward. We could unify without, looking in. Watch them hack lumps out of each other, safe in the knowledge that they weren’t hurting ours. Togetherness; it seems such a long time since we had much of that.
Both teams were full strength. Well, as full strength as salary caps and disciplinary bans would allow. Kruis, Skelton, Isiekwe, Williams, Spencer, Earl, Lozowski et al, were watching on from further afield but alighted in the empty Dublin amphitheatre was Owen Farrell, masked up and salivating like Lecter. In his stead, a man on the way out. Japan-bound Alex Goode would operate in the position he privately prefers but seldom plays. Elliot Daly and his Long Tom boot would drop back, and the oft forgotten Duncan Taylor would line up alongside the enduring Brad Barritt. If it was makeshift, it never showed. The greatest compliment all afternoon was that Owen’s absence was never mentioned.
Free of salary cap, Leinster were similar to seven days previous, when they’d undone Ulster. Similar, but not the same. No Van der Flier bound on the flank, and a new, yet old, half-back pairing: McGrath and Sexton returning to make things tick. The latter is under growing scrutiny. Like his English counterpart, there is a healthy distrust of his on-field persona, and yet unlike Farrell (Sexton is seven years his senior), questions are now being asked about how long he can continue to operate at the top of the sport. This afternoon served as a bitter pill to swallow for the former World Player of the Year. He was involved in the critical moment of the game as man of the match Michael Rhodes hit him topically high (leading to a shout of ‘You need an HIA, bro!’ from Billy Vunipola) and whilst you’ll never be convicted by a jury of your peers, his one-time teammate Brian O’Driscoll lamented across the airwaves that the Leinster outside-half was ‘not the athlete he once was’. As Farrell was finding, sometimes it is better to sit these things out.
And so the first half began. Leinster’s first touch was a precursor, a knock-on under the kick off that was then played by the man in front. It should have been a penalty, but no matter; Saracens would get many more. Black shirts plundered and dove, winning every contestable moment and often allowing Goode a kick at goal. Nine points were quickly amassed. A bit further out and still they forced the referee’s arm skyward. Elliot Daly was wheeled squeakily into position, the ball pointed forward on the tee as though it should have had two men knelt beside it with fingers in their ears. Twelve became fifteen, the reach of Sarries’ wounding jab was near-on fifty metres.
In the 37th minute, a lineout fed the midfield and Barritt ploughed a furrow he had countless times before. The inside-centre is as well-worn and comfortable as a cowboy’s favourite saddle, and as the ball was recycled, it found his shotgun buddy Taylor, and despite a ridiculously cruel run of injuries endured in his career, the one-time Olney mini has an uncanny ability to do exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time. His almost awkward looking offload found Goode and the fly-half’s pace did the rest. Goode ran as though escaping something; arching his back as though evading a touch, let alone a tackle. The lead was nineteen. Leinster could barely lay a finger on their London nemeses.
The second half recoiled. The Dubliners did cross through their forward pack. Andrew Porter doing his bit to redress the pasting he and his front row pals had had at scrum time. But it was another ten or so minutes before they could get more; Larmour found some rare room on the outside and by half-past four the gap was cut to five points and feeling that was enough, I had started wagering large amounts of cheese.
But Saracens care not for momentum or the precarious dairy funds of one of the world’s worst rugby tipsters. Via the practised paws of Itoje, Rhodes and George, they wrestled the tie back, even toying with two missed penalties before Goode’s final minute three-pointer made it mathematically unsurpassable. It all added up to an incredible victory but somehow I was left feeling a little short.
This Saracens team will leave us for a time. From Europe’s top table, the banishment is two years and while I understand the process, and concede that rules were broken, I can’t help but feel the sport will be poorer for it. Money doesn’t buy the attitude that won on Saturday afternoon in Dublin. Yes, it helps create a winning mentality by layering a side with top talent but rugby, in fact, sport in general, is so often not about skill. You don’t just get brilliance by putting very good players next to each other on a pitch. And in truth, I wonder how good some of these players would have been outside of this team, outside of the mantra which has been pumped into their veins week after week: to work hard for each other and every single moment.
Saracens will have to beat Racing away and then Exeter or Toulouse in the final if they are to leave an outrageous and indelible mark on this period of European Rugby. The task is tough, but so are these men. Men who want this particular ride to last forever. Saracens to win the whole thing? Only a fool would bet against it.