Billy Vunipola ‘brilliant’ but Ben Youngs outshone – How the England players fared at Leicester Tigers vs Saracens
If they were able to see the pitch through the unrelenting rain, Eddie Jones and Matt Proudfoot will have had plenty to ponder after Leicester Tigers’ dramatic, 13-12 victory over Saracens on Saturday at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.
With six members of their most recent 45-man training squad in action and three more high-profile absentees out to prove their worth, this would have been a worthwhile (though extremely wet) trip to the East Midlands.
Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs and Ellis Genge
Mark McCall managed to slip the return of Owen Farrell under the radar. Few saw it coming and, 63 days after coming off the bench for the British and Irish Lions against South Africa in the second Test, Saracens’ skipper looked assured.
Beginning with a surprising, scampering counter-attack past Freddie Burns and down the touchline to free Alex Lewington, his kicking and positioning underpinned a controlled first-half performance. One long-range penalty attempt faded wide, yet Farrell ended in credit thanks to an accomplished display. Saracens had a nine-point cushion when he left the field in the 69th minute.
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Ben Youngs exerted pressure with one crafty, sliding grubber from the tail of a maul and into space down the middle of the field. However, after pulling out of England’s training camp with a thigh problem, a lot of his kicking failed to trouble the visitors.
It should be said that Youngs’ wings, Kobus van Wyk and Hosea Saumaki, did not seem as canny in the aerial exchanges as their Saracens counterparts and the wind blew into Leicester faces for the first period. Even so, Tigers supporters were grateful for the verve of Jack van Poortvliet from the bench just six minutes after half-time.
A curiosity of Steve Borthwick’s much-changed selection was holding back Leicester captain Ellis Genge. The strategy worked superbly. Genge was unleashed from the bench and promptly manoeuvred a scrum penalty out of Marco Riccioni, who had been locked in a tit-for-tat scrummaging tussle with Francois van Wyk.
He stood over the Italy tighthead, sparking a mini-scuffle that stirred the crowd, and was a prominent figure as Tigers squeezed Saracens with their maul on numerous occasions during the second half. Naturally, he added dynamism in phase-play. Stationed in midfield at a late lineout, Genge punched a hole and eked out the breakdown penalty from which Leicester pulled to within 12-6.
England’s stable of loosehead props has been fascinating to follow. Even without Mako Vunipola, both Beno Obano and Bevan Rodd have surfaced. But Genge and Joe Marler must be numbers one and two at the moment.
George Martin, Max Malins, Freddie Steward
At the end of the game, due to another quirk of Borthwick’s selection strategy and replacements, Leicester had Ollie Chessum, George Martin, Harry Wells, Cameron Henderson and Hanro Liebenberg on the field. That constitutes an entire back five of rangy athletes.
Martin lasted the whole contest, personifying Leicester’s ability to hang on and stay in the fight even as it appeared as though Saracens could and should have killed them off.
He is not yet a go-to lineout jumper at senior level, but is developing in that area and becoming palpably more effective shifting bodies in contact on both sides of the ball. He stole in for a critical jackal turnover in the 76th minute and, as ever, amassed impressive numbers.
Martin’s tally of nine tackles was second only to Jackson Wray and just Billy Vunipola bettered his total of nine carriers. England are in the market for tall, industrious blindside flankers and the one-cap 20-year-old has plenty of promise and even more pep.
Untimely injury set-backs have ensured that Test career of Max Malins has not yet taken off. His attacking “intuition” has been praised by Jones and, despite squally conditions making handling very difficult, he was responsible for some of the slickest interplay on show.
During a largely composed showing, there were two mistakes in the back-field. Malins could not bring Youngs’ bobbling strike under control in the first period and then summed up Saracens’ late wobble. Having shifted to the wing, he lost his bearings and inexplicably allowed a clip from Ford to bounce off the posts.
Freddie Steward marked his arrival with a trademark catch that bought Leicester a penalty as Saracens’ chasers piled into the ensuing breakdown and lost their balance. He attempted the 50-metre pot-shot himself, but dragged wide.
Malins coaxed a handling error with an intelligent, low strike, Steward just failing to complete a diving take. Even so, the 20-year-old already feels like the most solid full-back in England contention and it would be a mild surprise to see anyone else starting there against Tonga in November.
Aside from waterboy Maro Itoje, Joe Heyes was the only member of England’s 45-man training squad from these clubs not to play. His omission, on tactical grounds, was vindicated because Nephi Leatigaga heft helped overhaul Saracens.
The exiles (for now)
George Ford, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George
As the conductor of Leicester’s evolving attack, George Ford had helped Tigers impart impressive fluency before this weekend. The elements made it difficult for anything remotely expansive, though. In first head-to-head since Christmas Eve of 2017, Ford was second best to Farrell.
That said, Ford seized the initiative once his old ally had left the field. He almost fashioned a try for Van Poortvliet with a chip that bumped against the post, used the wind to strike excellent touch-finders, drained a kick from 50 metres to make the score 12-6 and organised Leicester precisely. For all the merits of Marcus Smith, Ford will surely add to his 77 caps at some stage.
Few would have predicted that Jamie George would not see a minute of action over the Lions’ Test series against South Africa. As recently as November 2020, he was one of England’s most influential figures. Last week, Jones and Richard Cockerill looked at Luke Cowan-Dickie and three hookers with a single cap between them.
This was a low-key re-emergence for George. He made some neat touches in transition situations, throwing one long pass and plucking another loose ball off his toes. Leicester did get after his lineout throwing, as George’s set-piece connection with the excellent Nick Isiekwe did not function smoothly. His replacement, Tom Woolstencroft also added more bite at the breakdown.
At his best, Billy Vunipola bends matches to his will by standing tall in pivotal moments. Here, there were reminders of that ability. Aside from long passing across the back-field to help Saracens in the kicking exchanges, his opportunistic jackal turnover allowed Farrell to make it 3-0. A second-half surge trapped Calum Green and yielded three more points. Vunipola’s clattering tackle dispossessed Jack van Poortvliet with Tigers pressing.
He spilled twice in the Leicester 22 and was held responsible for the telling penalty try by referee Christophe Ridley, but registered 14 carries. Nobody else hit double figures. Mark McCall was convinced: “He was brilliant all the way through the game, to be honest” Saracens’ director of rugby said of Vunipola. “He was physical, really clever, great defensively and carried strongly.”
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