Billy and Mako Vunipola in full swing for Saracens against Munster is just the kick-start Lions need

Tom Cary
Mako Vunipola makes a break for Saracens against Munster - Rex Features

If this was a glimpse of what to expect from the Lions this summer – and there were eight of the travelling party on display here – then there are going to be a lot of stiff necks in the land of the long white cloud.

This was not a match for the purists. The half-time score at the Aviva Stadium was 26-22. In kicks from hand. In terms of actual running rugby, it was slim pickings. The first half, in particular.

What it proved beyond all doubt, though, was that Saracens are going to take some shifting from their perch as European champions. And that their six Lions – four of whom are likely starters in New Zealand – are in fine fettle. The last time Billy Vunipola was in Dublin he was pictured staggering out of a nightclub with what looked like a sarong around his waist, having drowned his sorrows along with the rest his England team-mates following their defeat by Ireland in the Six Nations finale. Yesterday, the England No 8 returned with Saracens and this time he was the one burying Irish dreams.

Both Vunipolas were utterly monstrous in attack and defence, carrying strongly and even popping up with some kicks from the midfield. If Warren Gatland is looking for extra cover at full-back, he could do worse than the prodigiously talented brothers. Owen Farrell, meanwhile, was his usual uncompromising, spiky self. Nerveless from the tee – he kicked six from six  – accurate with his passing, and setting the standard in defence. One tackle on his opposite man, the hapless young Tyler Bleyendaal, who had a difficult game overall, was a real momentum changer at the end of the first half. Maro Itoje was part of a pack that matched Munster and then gradually squeezed the life out of them. Tighthead Vincent Koch was a deserved man of the match but blindside flanker Michael Rhodes must surely have pushed him close.

Billy Vunipola races clear

It was Saracens’ monumental defensive performance that laid the foundations for the two second-half tries that eventually put the game to bed. And it was hugely impressive. Winning away in Ireland is never easy – as the five English clubs who have tried and failed this season can attest, not to mention Eddie Jones’ England. Winning away in Dublin against a Munster team imbued with a sense of destiny, roared on by nearly 50,000 flag-waving Munstermen at a ‘neutral’ Aviva Stadium, even less so.

Munster have been riding a wave of emotion since the death of their head coach and club legend, Anthony Foley, last October. Sweeping all before them like the big red juggernaut of old, they had racked up 20 wins in 22 games since that fateful day in Paris. 

Saracens had other ideas. Mark McCall’s team saw what Leinster did to Wasps here a couple of weeks ago, they saw what Munster did to Leicester last December. They knew what was coming at them. And they were ready for it. “It’s given them an extra edge,” noted Schalk Burger of the Foley factor. “All of us watched the rugby just after Anthony’s passing away. That was incredible scenes with 14 men, how they played 60 or 70 minutes with 14 men. Those things define seasons. [But] we won’t think about it too much.”

Saracens were good value for their win

It is to Saracens’ credit that they did not get caught up in the occasion. Munster made a predictably frenzied start and it took barely three minutes for Fields of Athenry to rain down on the players as Farrell was scragged in possession inside his own 22 metres  after Saracens were shoved unceremoniously backwards off their own scrum. Saracens refused to buckle. The first half was like the irresistible force meets the immovable object. But there were warnings, even fairly early on, that the visitors were capable of raising their game to a level Munster were unable to match. One quickfire break downfield saw Richard Wigglesworth knock on with the try-line gaping.

Beyond the passion and the physicality, and Simon Zebo’s extraordinary ability under the high ball, Munster did not have a huge amount to offer. The absence of Conor Murray robbed them of one of their chief weapons and it showed. Tyler Bleyendaal is a fine young player but he began to stutter after the break. After George Kruis dropped the ball over the try line following a brilliant pick and go, Bleyendaal sliced a clearance into touch from which Saracens finally got their first try, Mako Vunipola barrelling over from close range.

Bleyendaal then missed a penalty, his wretchedness complete when Saracens went straight up the other end and Farrell put one straight through the posts. The victory was completed in trademark Saracens fashion, the visitors soaking up 18 phases of Munster possession, then breaking upfield through a brilliant kick-chase, turning over possession, grubber-kick through and Chris Wyles scoring. Stunning.

Ireland has been a veritable graveyard of English dreams this season. But not for this Saracens. Not on this day.

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