Sean Maitland more than made up for his injury heartbreak of two years ago as he joined a select band of Scottish European champions, scoring a try as Saracens soared to their third title in four years in Newcastle.
In 2017 the Scotland wing suffered an ankle injury the week before the London club won a second successive crown against Clermont Auvergne in Edinburgh. But last night he was all smiles after contributing to a comeback triumph over Leinster in a compelling Heineken Champions Cup final played in a wonderful atmosphere at St James’ Park.
Billy Vunipola scored Saracens’ decisive second try after what his director of rugby Mark McCall described with some understatement “a complicated few weeks” for the England and Lions No 8, who was criticised for supporting the homophobic social media comments of Australia full-back Israel Folau.
Maitland, who will now hope to add an English league title before joining up with Scotland’s World Cup training squad, said: “It was great to be out there today. It was a bit of a worry when I injured my hamstring in the semi-final but thankfully I was good to play.”
The Blue Army of Leinster fans and Sarries’ Fez-sporting fanatics were naturally the dominant forces, but a large variety of club colours, including a fair few Glasgow and Edinburgh jerseys, were in evidence on this annual showpiece for European professional club rugby.
The predictions in the lead-up were that it may not be a champagne rugby thriller, more a physical slog between well-matched units with Test-level teamsheets. The opening quarter was certainly a muscular affair, but far from dull, a frantic albeit low-scoring end-to-end contest, with only Johnny Sexton’s early penalty to separate the sides.
Approaching the half-hour Leinster full-back Rob Kearney carved the first real opening, sparking a ferocious onslaught on the Sarries’ line, which ended up with them held up but costing the English side their Lions prop Mako Vunipola with a hamstring injury.
The five-metre scrum was brutally executed and ended with Ireland tighthead Tadhg Furlong burrowing over for the opening try, Sexton slotting the easy conversion to open up a 10-0 lead. Saracens hit back and forced a penalty as Leinster were penalised for not rolling away. Farrell made no mistake from in front of the posts. They ended the half on top, despite Maro Itoje being in the bin for a ruck offence, pounding the Leinster line before cleverly moving quickly wide to Maitland who had acres of space to stroll in at the left-hand corner for the try, Farrell sneaking the wide conversion inside the nearside post to bring a ferocious first 40 to a finish all square.
“I think until Maro got sin-binned we weren’t playing our best rugby,” said Maitland. “It maybe took Maz going off to wake us up!”
There was no let up as the second-half got under way in a similarly ding-dong fashion, with Leinster back-row Sean Cronin the next high-profile casualty five minutes in.
A deft feint and searing break from Sarries breakaway Jackson Wray had Leinster in all sorts of bother, resulting in a yellow for Leinster blindside Scott Fardy and a simple pop over the posts for Farrell to put the English side ahead for the first time.
Soon the red tide – Saracens in their change kit – began to surge. The Irish were mercilessly pinned back and when Billy Vunipola peeled off the back of an increasingly dominant scrum near the line there was simply no stopping the big man and Farrell’s conversion opened up a ten-point gap with 13 minutes to go.
In a week of epic comebacks in the football code associated with yesterday’s final venue that margin was not insurmountable heading into the final ten minutes but all the momentum was with Saracens. Leinster looked beaten, their raucous support were muted for the first time all day as the English hoarded possession and territory until this bruising heavyweight bout reached a fair and indisputable outcome.