Vunipola Charge Carries Saracens To Euro Glory

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 comments by Australia fullback Israel Folau (who was found to have violated his code of conduct), Vunipola changed the subject back to rugby. 

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The back-rower 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 in Newcastle, England.

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 standoff 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 flyhalf 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.

The traveling Dubliners saw their beloved team take a third-minute lead, Sexton nailing his first penalty after the Saracens defense 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 center and captain, was penalized for using his shoulder in an attempted clear out directly in front of the posts.

Leinster's defense 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 meters 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 offense and, though the London side brought on fresh props in Richard Barrington and Vincent Koch, they were unable to hold out from the five-meter scrum that followed.

The Comeback

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 defense with a quick-flick pass out to Maitland, who burst over the line from five meters 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 defense, Williams came to the rescue with a try-saving tackle on center 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 ruck close-in.

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.

Stats

Leinster had far more possession in the game —56% of the ball—but the Saracens attack was more successful, with the English club outpacing the Irish team in meters gained, meters per carry, line breaks, and offloads. 

Saracens: 20
Tries: Vunipola, Maitland
Convs: Farrell 2
Pens: Farrell 2

Leinster 10
Tries: Furlong
Convs: Sexton
Pens: Sexton

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