There’s something special happening at Saracens. That was the party line rolled out when the then-Vicarage Road based Premiership side made a stream of important signings that transformed them from also-rans to Premiership and European contenders.
Among those acquisitions were the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, as well as the hooker Schalk Brits, and all three have been integral to Saracens’s double-double attempt. Saturday’s 26-10 victory over Munster ensured that the reigning European Champions Cup holders will defend their title against Clermont Auvergne in Edinburgh in three weeks’ time, having already secured their Premiership semi-final berth.
What has been most telling about Saracens in the five weeks since the Six Nations ended is the sheer resilience to be second best, and they once again displayed that at the Aviva Stadium as they soaked up 40 minutes of Munster pressure for the loss of just three points before blasting the Irish province away with 26 unanswered points, with Mako Vunipola and Chris Wyles scoring the crucial tries after half-time.
“We have belief in each other,” Brits said after the semi-final win in Dublin. “With these big games you can’t look too far ahead. You have to focus on the next play. If you start looking at the clock or the scoreboard you start losing focus on what is happening now. Two or three years ago we changed all the mindset to focus on the next play being most important. Sometimes the bounce of the ball just doesn’t go your way but if you get stuck on that thought you’re not focusing on the next job
“We’re a hard team to play whoever we are playing. What makes us difficult to beat is that we don’t just have 15, we have a squad of 30 who we can swap. We have world-class players who we will miss when they don’t play but in essence we are a well-oiled machine.”
That well-oiled machine had barely touched down back in London on Saturday night when they jetted off to Barcelona, the squad that is, for one of the famed Saracens’ breaks. Their consistency in reaching semi-finals and final – this is their third Champions Cup final in four years and a fifth consecutive appearance in the last four – has coincided with bonding trips abroad.
Oktoberfest hosted one of their excursions, as did the Austrian ski resort of St Anton, “not on a skiing trip – high-altitude training”, Brits adds with a smile. But many of the Saracens ‘Wolfpack’, as they go by, have credited these breaks as the reason why they are ready and willing to put their body on the line for one another.
“We never look far ahead but we've got a culture of very hard-working individuals,” Brits added. “Tomorrow morning at 4am we're flying out to Barcelona for a day or two's team-building. There are a lot of special things happening.
“There are a lot of things Saracens does differently to a lot of other clubs. There's a lot going into us feeling a lot of love for the guys next to us, understanding what they're going through. I've got three kids, I need support from my team-mates on and off the rugby pitch. If you've been long enough together you understand each other's shortcomings and positives.”
While Brits’ absorbing smile and nice-guy persona displays all that is good about Saracens, Mako Vunipola’s stone-cold look during and after matches is evidence of their more ruthless side. The prop was, along with his brother Billy, key to keeping Munster at bay for 79 minutes, with the British and Irish Lions back-row CJ Stander finally breaching the try line in the final minute to score a consolation try.
The elder of the Vunipolas will embark on his second Lions tour this season, with his younger brother joining him this time around after missing out in 2013, and if Saturday was anything to go by, then they will both be lining up against the All Blacks on 24 June. That’s according to their teammate, Jim Hamilton, who believes Warren Gatland already has two of his Test starters locked in.
We want to look back and be counted as one of the great teams. That comes from winning trophies but that’s not the only thing. We want to make memories as a group
“What Billy gives you consistently, week-in, week-out, in the big games, it is not just his carrying ability, it is his defence,” Hamilton said. “It is the same with Mako – the scrum, how important is that going to be in New Zealand? Fairly important – but it is the stuff around the pitch that he brings, the tackling, the carrying, the passing.”
But steely-faced Mako sees it all as business as usual, such has been the standard set at Allianz Park this season. “We want to make our own legacy,” said Vunipola. “We want to look back and be counted as one of the great teams. That comes from winning trophies but that’s not the only thing. We want to make memories as a group. That’s the biggest driver for us. Today is a great memory.”
The win over Munster will be quickly forgotten if Saracens can see off Clermont in three weeks’ time to complete stage one of the double-double attempt, and if they go on to complete phase to two weeks’ later, then there really is something special happening at Saracens.