NEWCASTLE – A 67th minute try by England’s controversial No. 8 Billy Vunipola earned Saracens a third European Champions Cup title in four years with a 20-10 win over Leinster on Saturday.
Issued with an official warning by the English RFU and by his London club after an Instagram post in support of a homophobic posting by Australia full- back Israel Folau, Vunipola held off a trio of defenders to claim the decisive score of a heavyweight clash that did not disappoint in front of a capacity 51,930 St James’ Park crowd.
Leinster, seeking a record fifth title, grafted hard to build a 10-0 lead approaching half-time thanks to a try by loosehead prop Tadhg Furlong and a penalty and conversion by their stand-off and captain Johnny Sexton.
With their backs against the wall, though, Saracens drew level by the interval with ten points in the last two minutes of the half, thanks to a penalty by fly-half Owen Farrell and an injury time try by Scotland winger Sean Maitland, converted by Farrell.
It proved to be the platform for the English champions to become the fourth team to complete a hat-trick of Champions Cup wins, following Toulouse, Leinster and Toulon.
Despite the contest being played on English soil, Leinster’s huge band of followers turned St James’ Park into a deafening home from home.
Tiki tiki Tonga!!! ⚫️🔴 pic.twitter.com/ol3MUJYb7i— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) May 11, 2019
The travelling Dubliners saw their beloved team take a third minute lead, Sexton nailing his first penalty after the Saracens defence had strayed offside.
Saracens got within touching distance of the Leinster try-line with a 19th minute attack from the back of a scrum by Brad Barritt and Vunipola but Barritt, their inside centre and captain, was penalised for using his shoulder in an attempted clear out directly in front of the posts.
Leinster’s defence was getting stretched by the constant battering and when the Irish team managed to get on the front foot they ran up against a red brick wall.
It took a brilliant break by Rob Kearney to open some daylight. Stepping off one foot, then the other, the 2012 European player of the year made 20 metres and had Saracens desperately scrambling.
Leinster’s Kiwi wing James Lowe was thwarted by a superbly-timed tackle by Liam Williams in the left corner, then prop Cian Healy almost burrowed over in front of the posts, referee Jerome Garces consulting video evidence on.
The French official sent Saracens lock turned blindside flanker Maro Itoje to the sin bin for a third offside offence and, though the London side brought on fresh props in Richard Barrington and Vincent Koch, they were unable to hold out from the five-metre scrum that followed.
Furlong dived over to touch the ball down and Sexton converted to give Leinster a 10-0 cushion.
Just when the odds looked stacked against Saracens, though, they stepped up to the challenge.
Farrell landed a 39th minute penalty, then kicked for the corner in first-half overtime, prompting a drive from a line-out on the left that ended with Farrell outfoxing the Leinster defence with a quick flicked pass out to Maitland, who burst over the line from 5m out.
Farrell made no mistake with the conversion, leaving it all square at 10-10 at the interval.
Leinster came out firing after the break but, just as they looked to have cracked the Saracens defence, Williams came to the rescue with a try-saving tackle on centre Garry Ringrose.
It was Saracens who edged in front, Farrell kicking a 58th minute penalty after video evidence showed been unable to ground the ball from the bottom of a close range ruck.
Like Itoje in the first half, Leinster’s Australian flanker Scott Fardy was yellow-carded for deliberate offside but Itoje himself escaped further punishment after taking out Kearney in mid-air.
In the end, it was Leinster who suffered the game’s knockout blow, Vunipola taking the ball from the base of a scrum and holding off three defenders to claim the decisive score.
Farrell’s conversion earned a ten point cushion that the English giants were never in danger of relinquishing.