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Smarter Leinster have learned enough to exact revenge

Mission is to stop Saracens in their bid to beat the Blues

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Alex Goode believes being the last team to beat Leinster gives Saracens an advantage. Photo: Getty Images

Alex Goode believes being the last team to beat Leinster gives Saracens an advantage. Photo: Getty Images

Getty Images

Alex Goode believes being the last team to beat Leinster gives Saracens an advantage. Photo: Getty Images

Leinster were already in uncharted waters before lockdown, now they're breaking the boundaries of what a modern rugby team can achieve.

Given it's a stadium from another era, it's perhaps fitting that Neath's 'The Gnoll' was the venue where Leinster made history with their 21-13 win over Ospreys on February 21.

Only 3,164 fans were on hand to witness Leinster's 20th successive victory on a night when Josh Murphy, Tommy O'Brien and Cian Kelleher scored the tries. None of those players will be involved tomorrow when Leinster's record faces its greatest threat of all.

Saracens were the last team to beat the Blues. Indeed, it was the London club who held the European record for successive victories in the professional era with 19 in 2018.

Magic number

Nineteen was the magic number in the southern hemisphere too, where the Crusaders' streak ran to the same total before they came unstuck against the Waratahs in March 2019.

Last Saturday's Guinness PRO14 final victory was Leinster's 25th in succession. They have not lost a match for 489 days, a period that stretches back to their 20-10 Heineken Champions Cup final defeat to Saracens on May 11 of 2019.

It is a remarkable record for an organisation that has produced a consistent level of performance despite constant personnel changes.

They have beaten teams from seven nations on scorelines ranging from their 3-0 victory away to Zebre to their 54-42 win over Ulster before Christmas.

They've done it in front of big crowds and behind closed doors, while using 54 players.

The one constant has been that Leinster are on the winning side of the scoreline and, while the bookies are heavily favouring them to continue the run this weekend against the weakened European champions, this is the hardest match of them all.

While acknowledging Leinster's record, this week Saracens have been keen to remind anyone listening that they are the last team to inflict a defeat on the PRO14 side.

"They're aware of that," Alex Goode said this week. "We hope that it sits in their minds that we have the capability to beat them, which psychologically does something for us."

That defeat in Newcastle was a chastening blow for a club that had never lost a European final, a result Leinster didn't see coming at the end of an impressive European campaign.

Tomorrow marks the final chapter of an enthralling trilogy.

Saracens have long been in the sightlines. Minutes after they lost the 2017 semi-final to Clermont, Johnny Sexton was talking about how they had longed for a crack at the team that had supplanted Toulon as Europe's dominant force.

Before Toulon, it was Leinster who ruled the roost and they knew to get back there they'd have to take down the kings.

They got their chance in the spring of 2018 when, on the back of Ireland's Grand Slam, Cullen's side ran out comfortable winners at the Aviva.

Chapter two was a bruising loss for Leinster at St James's Park. The disappointment from the game was palpable, but Leinster channelled their emotion into learning from the loss and coming back stronger.

Watching that defeat from 16 months ago now, it is noticeable how much the Blues have evolved their game. In particular, they have learnt from the relentless carrying that ground them down as they ran into huge men for phase after phase before coughing up possession.

In the time since, they have become smarter in possession and have a range of kicking options across their back-line.

Their defence has improved, their kicking game has been refined and their attack is potent.

Still, they haven't faced anything like Saracens - even a weakened version - since the sides last met.

They earned a relatively comfortable European draw and, while Northampton Saints asked them plenty of tough questions in the first 40 minutes at Franklin's Gardens, Leinster eventually put almost 100 points on them over two games.

In the PRO14, they have blown most opponents away, but when asked to dog things out they've rolled up their sleeves.

If JJ Hanrahan had not missed a couple of clutch kicks, they might not be in this position but you have to have a bit of luck to keep going for this long.

This week, their mission is to make sure Saracens don't bookend their run. If they can beat Saracens and then take out Racing 92 or Clermont to make it 27 out of 27, they'll enhance their winning record even further.

It's hard to know what could stop them then.