Saracens draw with Ospreys to leave European reign hanging by a thread amid fresh Billy Vunipola injury fear

Hugh Godwin
The Independent

European Champions Cup-holders Saracens lost England star Billy Vunipola to a fresh injury here in Swansea tonight, and they can only qualify for the quarter-finals in the defence of their trophy as a runner-up after this tight and tense round-five pool match.

Ospreys’ Wales and Lions scrum-half Rhys Webb booted the ball dead in added time to show his side were happy to take the draw and see what transpires in the concluding pool matches next Saturday, when Saracens, on 13 points, host Northampton while Ospreys (15) travel to leaders Clermont Auvergne (18).

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Vunipola, in his second match back after a three-month lay-off, took a sharp bang on the right wrist attempting a tackle on Rob McCusker in the 38th minute, and immediately halted and winced in obvious pain.

Both the England No 8, who has been ravaged by three operations and a succession of injuries in the last 18 months, and his fellow Saracens forward Michael Rhodes were substituted at half-time – Rhodes with a hamstring problem.

First indications from Saracens were that Vunipola could not feel his wrist, and he would need a scan with the club’s staff initially hoping it was nothing worse than bruising of the bone. Forwards coach Alex Sanderson told a TV interviewer during the match: “It’s another injury and we’re absolutely devastated but we’ll wait and see for the scans.”

Billy Vunipola was forced off with an arm injury (Getty)
Billy Vunipola was forced off with an arm injury (Getty)

Saracens have been playing catch-up in Pool two since they were thrashed by Clermont in the snow-delayed thrashing at home to Clermont in December.

They will still fancy themselves to beat Northampton Saints next week and avoid following Leinster in 2013 as the last reigning champions to fail to make it through the following season’s pool stage.

As for Ospreys, they may be well off the pace set by Glasgow and Munster in their domestic Pro14 conference but there are some talented forwards here, and they gave Saracens the hurry-up in the scrum during the first half, earning a slew of penalties and free-kicks, as well as pilfering or slowing down ball at many a breakdown.

Owen Farrell kicked Saracens into a sixth-minute lead and added another two penalties before half-time, with the England fly-half’s opposite number, Dan Biggar, replying with two of his own in a duel from the tee that may be repeated in the Six Nations Championship when Wales visit Twickenham in four weeks’ time.

And the scoreline of 9-6 to Sarries at the interval reflected a dearth of try-scoring opportunities as a chill wind and steady rain swirled around a disappointingly less than half-full Liberty Stadium.

Rhys Webb passes the ball towards Dan Biggar (Getty)
Rhys Webb passes the ball towards Dan Biggar (Getty)

Saracens did work a couple of threatening positions in the Ospreys 22 – one from a short-side rumble off a scrum by Vunipola forced full-back Sam Davies to step into touch, but Saracens mucked up the ensuing maul; and another when Ospreys were offside at a clearing kick and the attack from the resulting penalty and line-out was only snuffed out by a forward going off his feet near the posts, to give Farrell his third successful kick.

At the other end, Maro Itoje very nearly had a line-out in his 22 robbed by his Lions tour team-mate Alun Wyn Jones, but Sarries survived.

So at this stage there were only spills and none of the thrills of the reverse fixture in round two in October, when Ospreys were edged out 36-34.

Much longer ago in this competition, Ospreys had upset Saracens in a quarter-final at Watford in April 2008 but their fortunes have diverged in the intervening years, with the London club reaching five semi-finals in a row from 2013, and winning the title in Lyon in 2016 and Edinburgh last May.

Owen Farrell kicks a successful penalty for Saracens during the first half (Getty)
Owen Farrell kicks a successful penalty for Saracens during the first half (Getty)

The Welsh side meanwhile have had no quarter-final qualification since 2010, a miserable record for the region and, individually, for the much-respected Jones, their captain throughout the exceptionally lean period in between.

The back-row changes forced on Saracens by the injuries to Vunipola and Rhodes- as well as losing Jackson Wray in the warm-up – left Schalk Burger at No 8 and Itoje on the blindside flank, with more disruption to the pack yet to come.

Farrell and Webb used raking kicks and up-and-under bombs to gain field position as the battle of messy breakdowns continued to tie in the rangier attackers.

So much for the expectation of tries from the top two-scoring clubs before this weekend’s round of matches.

Owen Farrell appears dejected at the full-time whistle (Getty)
Owen Farrell appears dejected at the full-time whistle (Getty)

Saracens had won the four previous meetings by single-figure margins and this one looked like going a similar way as Biggar converted a scrum penalty for 9-9 after 43 minutes, then Farrell nudged Sarries ahead again, with Dimtri Arhip the latest penalised for being off his feet.

While the Irish Test referee John Lacey seemed incapable of persuading either side away from this tactic, the arm-wrestle intensified, while sections of the home crowd howled at what they saw as Saracens getting away with persistent offside after the tackle.

A marginal decision went against Saracens on 65 minutes as Davies leapt over Chris Wyles and fell dangerously to earth, and Wyles was sent to the sin bin.

Saracens know a victory over Northampton may not be enough to reach the quarter-finals (Getty)
Saracens know a victory over Northampton may not be enough to reach the quarter-finals (Getty)

Then lock Will Skelton was replaced, with England hooker Jamie George switched to the flank, and from the next scrum Jones and others stepped through a ragged back row, forcing a penalty which Biggar stroked over for 12-12 with eight minutes remaining and Saracens a man down.

Saracens quickly eked a penalty out of Ospreys, in at the side of a maul, that Farrell belted over from 30 metres with characteristic poise, just before Wyles returned to the field.

But the final scoring twist came in the last minute as Saracens’ front row took a scrum down 35 metres from their posts and Biggar, maintaining the same accuracy as his rival Farrell, found the target.

Scorers:

Ospreys: penalties: Biggar 5

Saracens: penalties: Farrell 5

Teams

Ospreys: S Davies; J Hassler, A Beck, O Watkin, D Evans; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin (rep G Thomas, 64th min), D Arhip (M Fia 64), B Davies (A Beard 73), AW Jones (capt), O Cracknell, J Tipuric, R McCusker (W Jones 71).

Saracens: A Goode; S Maitland (C Wyles 58), M Bosch (A Lozowski 73), B Barritt (capt), L Williams; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, V Koch (J Figallo 60), M Itoje, W Skelton (C Tolofua 71), M Rhodes (G Kruis 41), C Clark, B Vunipola (S Burger 41).

Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).

Attendance: 9,158.

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