The moment it became obvious that Saracens had a few more gears to go through than Munster arrived midway through the first half of this European Champions Cup semi-final.
Receiving the ball in the Saracens midfield around the halfway line, Mako Vunipola sent a probing, low 50-metre kick behind the advancing Munster defenders and across the field for winger Chris Ashton to hare after. It was almost inch-perfect, bouncing out of play just as Ashton arrived on the scene.
But it spoke of a confidence bubbling under the surface of this Saracens team that sets them apart from their rivals – and a versatility in the older Vunipola brother specifically, that makes the England – and surely Lions – loosehead one of the most skilful forwards in world rugby.
It was not so much that the 26-year-old Vunipola took on a kick. Plenty of forwards attempt kicks, with varying degrees of success, over the course of a weekend. It was the fact that he took it on in this match – a European Champions Cup semi-final in Dublin, so often the graveyard of English dreams – with the scores at that point pretty much level.
Under no pressure whatsoever to clear his lines, he just felt it was the right thing to do, was in position and, crucially, was empowered to do so.
“It’s not enough just to be a set-piece prop anymore,” Saracens’ director of rugby, Mark McCall, said afterwards of Vunipola’s all-round game. “You need to be able to function in a defensive system. You’re going to have a role to play in the kicking game and also in any attack. You can’t really carry passengers in any part of the team any more. Thankfully we’ve got a pretty good ball player who sees the game as well as any back.”
Vunipola did not see what all the fuss was about. Mind you he does have a pretty good poker face.
“I practise my kicking more than I do my scrummaging,” he shrugged. “Probably need to turn that round a bit! I actually wasn’t too pleased with it [that kick]. I thought it was a chance to score.”
This was not a brilliant game in terms of flowing rugby, but it showed what Saracens are all about.
It is tempting to ponder whether they would have succeeded where England failed against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium last month.
The first-half possession and territory stats were remarkably similar to that match, with Munster enjoying 75 per cent territory and 70 per cent possession on Saturday.
However, while Rassie Erasmus’ men were clearly fired up – bringing the 50,000 Aviva Stadium crowd to their feet within minutes of the kick-off when they drove a Saracens scrum backwards against the head – and while they kept Saracens to within three points of them at the interval, the visitors just soaked up everything their hosts threw at them.
Owen Farrell was typically surgical with the boot, the famed Wolfpack unyielding in defence. Billy Vunipola was back to his explosive best, shimmying and carrying, and like his brother, even having a go with his boot as well.
Do they argue about which one has the most flair? “Not really,” Mako Vunipola smiled. “He thinks he’s a better kicker than me. He thinks he’s a better passer as well. I don’t really care about that stuff. It’s all about the team.”
There was always the feeling that McCall’s men had something in reserve; a speed and efficiency to their attacks that Munster struggled to contain. Mako Vunipola and Chris Wyles’ second-half scores opened up a healthy advantage which was reduced only by CJ Stander’s late consolatory try. Saracens’ wasted two other clear try-scoring opportunities.
Can they go on to achieve the “double double” a la Leicester in 2001-2002? Schalk Brits believes the “special” camaraderie in the team will help. After reaching their third European Champions Cup final in four years, the players headed off for a team-building camp in Barcelona on Sunday, from which they will return tonight. Brits said that spirit showed on the pitch.
“You could see it in that defensive set just before half-time when we were down to 14 men and Munster were on our line,” argued the Springbok. “People defend for each other because they want to, not because they get paid.”
Mako Vunipola was adamant that just reaching these finals was no longer enough, for Saracens now it is all about building a dynasty. “We want to look back and be counted as one of the great teams,” he said. “That comes from winning trophies but that’s not the only thing. We want to make memories as a group. Today is a great memory.”