European Champions Cup final: Key battles
There will be a clash of the titans when Leinster and Saracens lock horns in the European Champions Cup final at St. James’ Park on Saturday.
Defending champions Leinster will bid to become the first team to win the tournament five times, while Sarries are desperate to regain a trophy they won back-to-back in 2016 and 2017.
Some of the best players in the world will collide in the Newcastle showdown this weekend.
We pick out some of the key battles for the decider between the Premiership and Pro14 champions.
JOHNNY SEXTON V OWEN FARRELL
It is fitting that the biggest occasion in European club rugby will likely be decided by the continent’s top two fly-halves. Farrell leads the tournament in points scored with 79 and kicked 22 in the semi-final win over Munster.
A thigh injury has restricted Sexton to five appearances in the competition this season, but he has never lost in five European finals and, if the Ireland star outperforms his England counterpart on Tyneside, it will go a long way to extending that record to six.
79 – @Saracens’ Owen Farrell is the top point scorer in the @ChampionsCup this season (79), he finished as the top scorer in each of the previous three editions of the competition. Reliable. pic.twitter.com/Zt8mPTGdti
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) May 10, 2019
MAKO VUNIPOLA V TADHG FURLONG
Mako Vunipola will have a tough assignment when he goes against Furlong, his roommate on the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand and one of his rivals for the European Player of the Year award.
They each excel at set-pieces and in open play and this clash of front-row heavyweights, in which Furlong will make his 100th Leinster appearance, should prove pivotal to the outcome.
SCOTT FARDY V MARO ITOJE
Itoje’s athleticism and versatility make him one of the best back-rows in world rugby. He had been expected to go head to head with James Ryan at lock, but instead Itoje lines up at blindside flanker, providing a significant challenge for opposite number Scott Fardy, whose ability to contain Itoje’s tendency to break free down wide areas will be crucial to stopping a Sarries side that has scored the most points (273) in the competition this season.
149 – England’s Maro Itoje hit 149 rucks in total during the November Tests, more than any other Tier 1 player, while teammate Mark Wilson was the first man to the ruck on 83 occasions, no other player reached the breakdown first as often. Tireless. pic.twitter.com/PxhBFm37VY
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) 27 November 2018
BILLY VUNIPOLA V JACK CONAN
Like Fardy, Conan has a significant task on his hands against one of the game’s top number eights. Billy Vunipola is one of the best all-round players in his position and had a superb impact against Munster with his ball carrying.
However, Conan has the same amount of tries as Vunipola in this year’s competition (two) and if he can match his counterpart on Saturday then Leinster’s hopes of retaining the title will be significantly boosted.