Fardy's Leinster and Skelton's Saracens to battle for European supremacy

by AFP

Scott Fardy and Leinster are through to a second consecutive Champions Cup final and they'll battle Will Skelton and English powerhouse Saracens for the title.

Fit-again captain Jonathan Sexton told Leinster to prepare for the "biggest battle of our careers" after guiding the Irish province into the decider.

The Ireland flyhalf was in fine form as title-holders Leinster beat Toulouse 30-12 at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on Sunday in the second of this weekend's semi-finals.

Victory means Leinster will have the chance to clinch a tournament-record sixth European crown when they face English champions Saracens, unbeaten in Europe this season, in the May 11 final in Newcastle.

Leinster won the trophy last season and Saracens lifted it the two seasons before that. The final at St James' Park is also a repeat of last season's quarter-final, when Leinster ended Saracens' bid for a third straight European crown.

Johnny Sexton was back to some of his best rugby against Toulouse. Photo: Getty ImagesLeinster outscored French league leaders Toulouse three tries to none on Sunday, with the visitors having just four penalties to show for their efforts.

Fly-half Sexton, far from his best as Ireland lost their Six Nations title this season, was playing his first match since facing Wales in Cardiff on March 16. He had been out with a thigh injury.

Encouragingly for Irish hopes at this year's World Cup in Japan, he looked somewhere near his best both as a goalkicker and in open play.

homas Ramos opened the scoring in the fifth minute only for Sexton to draw Leinster level soon afterwards in front of a crowd of more than 42,000.

Leinster took the lead when Sean O'Brien found James Lowe who broke a tackle from Pita Akhi to score in the left corner. It was the winger's  sixth try in eight European appearances.

Both sides suffered first-half sin-binnings.

A hand in the ruck by Toulouse lock Richie Gray saw him yellow carded.

With Toulouse down to 14, Luke McGrath scored from a maul.

Then Henshaw's deliberate knock-on made it 14-a-side, with experienced English referee Wayne Barnes deciding against awarding a penalty try even though prop Charlie Faumuina was set to score from the pass.

Ramos' penalty double kept Toulouse in touch, with Leinster denied another Lowe try due to obstruction by Jack Conan in the build-up.

Sexton's kicking, meant Leinster led 17-6 against fellow four-time European champions Toulouse at half-time in what was effectively a home game for the Dublin-based side.

Leinster had absorbed the loss of Rhys Ruddock who fell ill pre-match. His replacement, Australian back-row Fardy, crossed for the champions' third try in the 52nd minute after good work in the build-up by Jordan Larmour and Cian Healy.

Toulouse replacement Romain Ntamack kicked a penalty but that was nullified by Sexton in his final act of the game before he went off in the 65th minute.

Ross Byrne, Sexton's replacement, completed the scoring with a late penalty.

Billy Vunipola ended a difficult week off the field by producing a man-of-the-match display as Saracens beat Munster 32-16 in a European Champions Cup semi-final at Coventry's Ricoh Arena on Saturday.

The England No. 8 was repeatedly jeered by Munster fans days after the back-row was warned by his club and the Rugby Football Union for publishing a controversial statement on social media.

Vunipola said "man was made for woman to pro create that was the goal no?" on Instagram and he also liked a post from Australia's Israel Folau that stated "hell awaits" for homosexuals.

Will Skelton in action for Saracens. Photo: Getty imagesBut although fans of the English champions were vastly outnumbered by supporters of the Irish province, their cheers could still be heard when Vunipola went over for a try in the 72nd minute that confirmed Saracens' victory.

And as he walked back to celebrate his score, he appeared to gesture towards the Munster fans who had been taunting him.

"Behind closed doors this week, I felt a lot of love and kindness and I am very grateful to be part of this team," Vunipola told BT Sport.

"From my point of view, I believe in what I believe in and it was never my intention to hurt anyone," he added after a win that saw Saracens into a May 11 final in Newcastle against either title holders Leinster or Toulouse, who play on Sunday.

Munster, like Saracens, two time-European champions, have now lost 10 of their tournament record 14 semi-finals.

England captain Owen Farrell, who missed the quarter-final win over Glasgow because of the birth of his son, kicked 22 points for 2016 and 2017 European champions Saracens, who only led 12-9 at the break following a tryless first half.

But Michael Rhodes' converted try and two more penalties from Farrell meant Saracens, unbeaten in Europe this season, pulled clear to 25-9 in a 13-point burst early in the second period.

Munster cut the deficit through Darren Sweetnam's try but Saracens still had plenty in hand.

Saracens opened the scoring with Farell's second minute penalty.

Sustained Munster pressure led to outside-half Tyler Bleyendaal's equalising penalty in the 10th minute but Farell claimed a six-point advantage with two more efforts by the 26th-minute.

Bleyendaal cut Saracens' lead to three points again in the 31st minute.

With three minutes of the half to play Munster and Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray levelled the match at 9-9 with a superb long range penalty from 47 metres only for Farrell to nudge Saracens ahead again in stoppage time.

Brad Barritt did not return for the second half but Saracens made light of losing their skipper with the first try of the match.

Flanker Rhodes picked an excellent line to take a short pop pass from scrum-half Ben Spencer and charge in as Munster's attention was distracted by decoy runners.

Farrell converted and then rubbed salt in Munster's wounds with two more penalties.

When Munster, in desperate need of a try, opted for an attacking line-out off a penalty, Saracens held up the drive led by centre Chris Farrell and gained a defensive scrum metres from their line.

But they lost control of the setpiece and Munster worked the ball across field to send in wing Sweetnam for a 61st-minute try in the corner, converted by replacement JJ Hanrahan.

At 25-16 behind, Munster still had hope but after a run by Strettle and drive by Richard Barrington, Vunipola powered his way over the line from close range.


Champions Cup semi-final

Saracens 32 - Munster 16

Leinster 30 - Toulouse 12