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Champions Cup

Leinster vs Saracens Preview & Key Match-Ups

Leinster and Saracens have named their star-studded teams for the Champions Cup Final

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(Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Leinster and Saracens have confirmed their respective 23-man squads for the Champions Cup Final in Newcastle’s St. James’ Park on Saturday at 17 00.

The mouth-watering clash which sees Leinster chasing a record fifth European crown take on Saracens who are looking for a third European title in four years is being hyped up as the biggest final ever and when you see the teams you can see why.

Leinster have named an unchanged XV from the one that comfortably dispatched of Toulouse in the semi-finals. While Saracens have made only two changes to their fifteen that saw off Munster in their last-four tie.

That means that Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong remain in the prop positions alongside a fit-again Sean Cronin, who has recovered from a calf-injury that he picked up in the game against the French giants.

Devin Toner and James Ryan lock down behind them in the second-row, with Scott Fardy, Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan making up the pack at six, seven and eight respectively.

Luke McGrath begins the match in a half-back partnership with captain Johnny Sexton, as Ireland centre duo Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose take the 12 and 13 jerseys.

James Lowe continues on the left-wing having missed last years final, with Jordan Larmour on the right and Rob Kearney at full-back.

The reigning champions have plenty of depth on the bench as well with James Tracy and Michael Bent, joined by the surprise selection of Jack McGrath as the front-row replacements.

Rhys Ruddock, Max Deegan, Hugh O’Sullivan, Ross Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin make up a strong subs-bench for the boys in blue.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen is well-aware of the opportunity his side have to become the first side to win five European Cups and admits it is in their heads.

“It’s in the back of everyone’s minds, we know it’s there,” he said when asked about the prospect.

While lock James Ryan has told his teammates that they will need to produce a big game if they are to come out on top on Saturday.

“We’re going to need a season-best performance this weekend,” he said.

The formidable Saracens stand between Leinster and history and they have named as strong a side as possible.

England powerhouse Mako Vunipola opens the game alongside Jamie George and Titi Lamositele in the front-three.

The only change in the pack sees Will Skelton come into the second-row beside George Kruis, with Maro Itoje shifting to blindside flanker, to partner Jackson Wray and Billy Vunipola in the back-row as Michael Rhodes misses out through injury.

Ben Spencer is at scrum-half, with Owen Farrell at fly-half. Captain Brad Barritt has been passed fit for the showdown and is joined by Alex Lozowski in the centre.

Wales star-man Liam Williams is on the left-wing, with Scotland speedster Sean Maitland on the right and Alex Goode finishing the starting line-up at 15.

Just like Leinster, Sarries have a vast amount of quality to call upon from the bench.

Joe Gray, Richard Barrington, Vincent Koch, Nick Isiekwe and Schalke Burger are the forwards replacements while Richard Wigglesworth, Nick Tompkins and David Strettle cover the back-line.

Speaking ahead of the match Saracens No 9 Wigglesworth has told the media that their previous final losses make them a better team in finals today.

“We suffered a lot of pain in Europe before winning in the Lyon rain (against Racing 92 in 2016). The feeling that day was relief because we had put it to bed. The best thing now is that there is no sense of panic; that is not bought, but comes from experience. We can react to pressure and get the job done. When we lost before, it tended to be because we were unable to cope with it but, if Leinster win, it will be because they were the better team,” he said.

Saracens are the only unbeaten team in this seasons Champions Cup while Leinster have only lost one game to Toulouse by a single point, 28-27.

With that in mind and the history they have created, here are five key match-ups to look out for on Saturday.

Cian Healy vs Mako Vunipola:
Although they won’t be on the same side of the scrum, these are possibly the two best looseheads in the game. Healy is going for his fifth crown while Vunipola will be determined to make his mark on the game with another dominant display. Both are key at the breakdown and big ball carriers, however, both have faced injury worries over the past few years and will be hoping that they can remain on the itch as long as they can to help their team. In a clash of titans all over the pitch, the men in the No 1 jerseys could hold the key to where this match is won or lost.

Devin Toner vs Will Skelton:
This is an interesting one as everyone thought we would be looking at Ryan vs Itoje, however, this will be an entirely different beast for Toner to cope with as Michael Rhodes sits the game out. The man mountain that is Skelton will make as many carries as Leinster’s Ryan and it will be a big decision as to whether Toner or Ryan take on the Australian in open play.

Both Toner and Skelton will be essential to their side’s line-out and creating a clean attacking platform if chances arrive. The set-piece and breakdown are vital in a match where no errors will be allowed and these two will have some battle in the air.

Jack Conan vs Billy Vunipola:
Conan has really come into his own in the past few months, but this will be his toughest challenge yet. These are possibly Ireland and England’s starting No 8’s for the World Cup and both will want to make a marker on the biggest stage.

Although different in size and shape, the two are similar in play as they both carry with shear power and speed, while either one can produce a moment of magic when needed. Leading from the back of the scrum is a huge role, while a sniping run off the back of a ruck from either one could be the winning of this game if they seize their opportunity.

Johnny Sexton vs Owen Farrell:
The last time these two met in the Six Nations Farrell was in form while Sexton was off-colour, and we saw what happened. This time it looks as though both will be at their best, with last years’ world player of the year taking on a very possible future holder of that title.

Sexton plays on the gain-line, while Farrell is not afraid to put in a massive hit on any player and will take any chance he gets to put Sexton on his backside. That is before we take into account the kicking abilities of both, which as we know from previous finals, the finest margins come between teams, meaning accuracy from the tee will be crucial.

James Lowe vs Sean Maitland:
Big carrying, hard-hitting James Lowe will be looking to make up for missing the final last season and will have a difficult time against Scotland legend Sean Maitland. Lowe brings a certain sparkle to the game that others dream of having and Maitland will have to keep an eye on his man, or he will walk all over him.

However, Lowe’s defensive abilities will be tested here as Maitland will take any chance to counter that he can and is solid in the air. Both defences are rock-solid, but you wouldn’t bet on either keeping out these men if they are on form for the 80 minutes.

All fifteen players on the pitch have a titanic match-up with their opposite number as the majority of them are proven international players and that is what sets this final apart. Which is why you won’t want to miss this match wherever you are.

Whatever happens, this is the game rugby fans have wanted to see for a long time now and it is almost upon us. These are the two best teams in Europe over the past few years and it may be safe to say that the winner of this will not only be crowned winners of the Champions Cup this season, but perhaps the ultimate champions of European rugby since the competition started.

6 Nations

Leinster Star Considering Options as IRFU Talks Continue

Leinster could be set to lose another club legend with the IRFU playing hardball on a new contract

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(Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Rob Kearney is looking into all options with his current IRFU contract due to expire after this year’s World Cup

The Ireland and Leinster full-back was missing from Leo Cullen’s list of blues players that have signed new contracts ahead of next season.

Kearney’s manager Dave McHugh has confirmed that discussions are continuing with the IRFU and that the player would like to remain with Leinster.

“Discussions are ongoing with Leinster and the IRFU. We had hoped to have reached a conclusion by now. The discussion is live and open. But it has led us to check other options. We are still hopeful of reaching an agreement with the IRFU and Leinster,” he said.

It is believed that at least two French teams are weighing up the signature of Kearney, where he would earn a massive salary compared to his current contract with McHugh admitting that the money has a part to play.

“The IRFU has made Rob an offer. But if I am honest, it is well below where it needs to be – well below. It has been a little protracted. We are struggling to get it to a point where it makes sense for him,” he added.

At 33, Kearney is nearing the twilight of his glittering career but both he and McHugh want him to continue playing while he is still well able.

“It is Rob’s goal to continue playing rugby while he is fit and healthy and well. He is a starter both for his country and for his province. We need it to make sense for him. We appreciate there is an end point to his rugby playing career. But it isn’t yet,” he said.

With 21 contracts being announced yesterday McHugh explained that Kearney was absent as there isn’t the same urgency in his talks as there has been with other players.

“Rob is contracted to the end of the World Cup, so I guess we’re not in the same rush that Leinster were to announce their 21 new contracts for the start of next season. He wouldn’t return to the province until after the World Cup, so there isn’t the same urgency from our perspective,” he concluded.

Kearney’s future has been under much speculation for some time now and there was fuel added to the fire when teammate Sean O’Brien posted a possible farewell message on his Instagram.

O’Brien himself leaves for London Irish come the end of the season and unless the IRFU budge in Kearney’s discussions it appears as though Leinster could lose yet another one of their most decorated players.

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6 Nations

Leinster and Ireland Star Signs New Contract

One of Ireland’s key men has signed a new two-year deal with the IRFU

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(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Cian Healy has signed a new two-year deal with the IRFU to remain with Leinster and Ireland until the summer of 2021.

The prop is one of the country’s most consistent performers and is delighted to have the opportunity to continue representing both province and country.

“Pulling on a Leinster or an Ireland jersey is something that I have always taken a huge amount of pride in and I am thankful for every opportunity I get. I am delighted therefore to have extended my IRFU contract and to continue to line out for Leinster. I believe that we have built something special at Leinster and with the national team and I want to contribute as best I can to both teams in what will be a hugely exciting few months and years ahead,” he said.

Healy has faced a number of serious injuries over the years but has thanked everyone at club and national level for their support and looks forward to the future with both.

“There has been some difficult times over the last few years for me personally with injury but the support within the Leinster and the Irish rugby family was very humbling from fellow players, coaches and supporters and it’s something that I won’t forget. It made this decision all the easier knowing that I was part of something bigger than just a rugby team. I hope to play my part in helping Leinster and Ireland achieve further success over the next few years and I’m looking forward to the next chapter in that journey,” he added.

Having been capped by Ireland 88 times since his debut in 2009 and holding 207 Leinster caps to his name already Healy is almost ever-present and IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora paid tribute to his consistency.

“Cian is performing at a very high level week in and week out. He works incredibly hard in ensuring that he is physically in the best condition to perform and has bounced back from adversity to return to the top of the international and club game. He will continue to be a leading performer for Ireland and Leinster over the coming years,” he said.

Healy has represented Ireland at two World Cups (2011 and 2015) and will be hoping to be heading to a third in Japan later this year, he also represented the British and Irish Lions in 2013.

As well as that Healy has a host of winner’s medals to his name with three Six Nations Championships in the bag for Ireland, while with Leinster he has won four European Cups, three Guinness Pro titles and a Challenge Cup.

Healy will be hoping to end the week on a high when he has the chance to add a fourth league title to his name as Leinster head to Celtic Park to face Glasgow Warriors in the Pro 14 final.

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Champions Cup

Connacht Receive Planning Permission for Stadium Redevelopment

Connacht have announced that the Sportsground’s redevelopment has been given the all-clear and will have a couple of new features

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(Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Connacht Rugby have been granted planning permission for the €30 million redevelopment of the Sportsground and it will some new features. 

The land is owned by the Irish Greyhound Board and will include a new greyhound racing track once complete along with a new high-performance centre.

Speaking on the redevelopment Connacht’s chief executive Willie Ruane admitted he is delighted that everything had been passed.

“There has been huge momentum behind the project since we announced last October, and we now have the final granting of planning permission. With 130 people employed throughout the province by Connacht Rugby we are extremely proud of the annual contribution of €34.4 million we are making to the regional economy,” he said

The new stadium will also have a 12,000-seat capacity, with two stands on either touchline and terrace areas behind the try-lines.

The club secured €10 million in private funding between its own funds and an approved bank credit facility. Ruane confirmed that without the State providing the other €20 million the project cannot continue.

“We have €10m in private funding to bring to the table through a mixture of Connacht Rugby funds and an approved bank credit facility. The project is now shovel ready and the remaining €20m state investment is critical to its delivery,” he added.

The redevelopment would be a massive boost to the club who are progressing season by season and have secured Champions Cup rugby for next season. It is also positive news for the Galway area as a whole as it continues to grow in popularity among tourists and this will only add to the attraction.

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