‘Exit’ is a word you hear quite a bit in rugby.
Back in the day it was about clearing your lines. Now it’s about making a safe exit from the 22, and you’d be surprised at the number of teams who go about it in almost identical fashion.
There were two exits that left a lasting impression on us in St James’ Park, and they came at the end of each half. These were not about Leinster getting out of their 22, rather they were about getting off the pitch altogether.
In the second case the defending champions looked like they wanted to leave but knew it was, as a parent said to us recently when his son was dropped off a team, “uncool”. At the time Leinster were unwilling participants in a fairground attraction. They were the sitting ducks and Saracens were the lads getting in the target practice. Until Jerome Garces would blow the final whistle the boys in blue were obliged to keep popping their heads up, knowing the only certainty was that they would get whacked. That’s the game. Even when the clock goes into the red you have to keep playing, for to do otherwise is to concede you are beaten.
The circumstances at the end of the first half were, naturally enough, altogether different. Typically when a team – with the game in overtime – kick the ball out to end the half, they then run off at top speed as a sort of confirmation that they are in control. This is us getting to the changing room ASAP to fine tune what happens after the break.
In Leinster’s case there was a lot to be sorted at half time. In Cardiff in 2011, they had needed to patch up their scrum against a Saints pack that had been tearing great big holes in it. This time the story wasn’t as dramatic, but certainly there was an urgency around their need to generate some front-foot ball. They had been forced into a lot of static rugby that saw them getting pounded frequently when they carried.
The good news was that they could carry out those running repairs from a position of relative strength. They were 10-3 ahead. True, the circumstances of Saracens’ three points had been painful – George Kruis won the bounty for the cleanest shot on Johnny Sexton – but when the Leinster captain went to restart the game there was just over half a minute to play, and, significantly, Maro Itoje had just returned from the sin bin.
Saracens’ exit off that restart had featured their standard box kick down the tramlines, with a typically good chase, but still Leinster regained possession, went one phase, and then Luke McGrath had the opportunity to kick it out. Instead he boxed it back. As Munster found to their cost in the semi-final, chasing kicks against Saracens means negotiating the slalom that is their escort service: the bodies they put between you and the ball to protect their receiver. They are very good at it. If you succumb to frustration and smash them en route, you’ll be penalised.
Leinster didn’t arrive in good enough shape to contest in the air, so Rob Kearney contested at the breakdown and was done by Garces, with encouragement from Sarries scrumhalf Ben Spencer. That handed control back to Saracens. And they kept it long enough to engineer the brilliant try by Sean Maitland. By the time Owen Farrell was squeezing over the conversion of that score there were exactly 44 minutes on the clock. And Leinster’s lead was gone. At that point they should have been indoors and well advanced with their analysis of what needed fixing.
The psychological impact of surrendering 10 points quick-time is significant. But Leinster are a champion team. Early in the second half they carved out an overlap that should have given them a score, but Garry Ringrose straightened and took contact instead of making the pass. They would never get close enough again.
Those two calls contributed hugely to the outcome. As did their lack of firepower off the bench. We don’t know how Saracens would have responded if they had trailed at the break – well, we have a fair idea – but they knew they had been allowed to change the shape of the game. And in the process pushed Leinster closer to the exit.
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