Vunipola brothers keep good times rolling as Saracens aim for glory

Robert Kitson at the Aviva Stadium
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Vincent Koch, right, and fellow prop Mako Vunipola celebrate Saracens’ victory over Munster in the Champions Cup semi-final.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images</span>
Vincent Koch, right, and fellow prop Mako Vunipola celebrate Saracens’ victory over Munster in the Champions Cup semi-final. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Keeping up with Saracens grows ever tougher. Not content with reaching their third European final in four years, the defending champions have now flown to Barcelona for their latest impromptu bonding session at a time when most title-chasing clubs are looking to keep players on the straight and narrow. Sarries view the world differently and the results are hard to argue with.

Their senior players continue to detect a direct link between the good times they share off the field and the collective desire that ultimately sapped Munster’s spirit on Saturday. Had they not twice spilled the ball with the try-line begging, the visitors could conceivably have won by 30 points in the most hostile of surroundings. It will take a supreme effort from their opponents Clermont Auvergne to deny them a second successive European crown at Murrayfield on 13 May.

According to their fun-loving South African hooker Schalk Brits – “Unfortunately rugby gets in the way of our social activities” – there is increasing confidence in the dressing room they can cope with whatever challenge awaits: “We’re a hard team to play whoever we are playing. What makes us difficult to beat is we don’t just have 15, we have a squad of 30 who we can swap. We have world-class players who we miss when they don’t play but in essence we are a well-oiled machine.”

Catching a 4am flight from London to Barcelona having barely gone to bed following their return from Dublin is all part of the musketeering “one for all” ethos. “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,” said Brits. “People defend for each other because they want to, not because they get paid. Sometimes people wonder how you get an extra 5% out of a player; how can you get him up off the ground. If you feel so much love for the team and want to earn the respect of the guy next to you, the shared past experiences help you do more for each other. That’s what makes this club quite a special place. The rugby’s important but the individual comes first.”

It also clearly helps to have the Vunipola brothers at your elbow. Weekends like this do nothing to weaken the argument that a full-strength Saracens would beat a Vunipola-less England and the Scotland lock Jim Hamilton reckons New Zealand will feel the full force when the Lions come calling: “They’re two of the best players I’ve ever taken the field with and the backbone of our team.

“Both Mako and Billy are world class. It’s all well and good saying: ‘We need to stop Billy Vunipola’ but you can put three men on him and he’s still making the gainline. It’s not just his carrying ability, it’s his defence and the energy he brings. It’s the same with Mako. He can drop goals from anywhere, he can kick off the tee, he can pass off both hands and put a 40-50 metre pass in. The skillset of these guys is ridiculous. Mako walks around the pitch looking so moody, as if he’s not enjoying it. But he is a class above.”

Things might have been slightly harder had Conor Murray been fit to play. Munster’s magnificent supporters were always liable to be disappointed once Saracens had weathered a furious early assault. After Mako Vunipola’s 54th-minute try had given them control the outcome was never in doubt, although head coach Rassie Erasmus’s decision to stay rather than return to South Africa will be a slight consolation to the downcast hordes from Limerick and Cork.

Even Erasmus, though, had to concede a sizeable gap currently exists between the sides, with Saracens’ management happy for the players to put the “bar” in Barcelona and rest several for Saturday’s league game against relegated Bristol. “Ice baths and recovery are important but what Saracens value most is the togetherness and the culture,” stresses Hamilton.

“When the going gets tough you can interact with players as if you’ve known them for 10 years. It’s like a brotherhood. A lot of that revolves around the fact they’ve grown up together. You share a beer and you’re honest with each other. That’s a huge thing and at the minute it’s working. We know what it takes in these big games and we’re cool, calm and collected in these environments. We thrive under this sort of pressure and we’re relentless in what we do. We’ve been pretty ruthless in the last 20 minutes all season.”

Only Leicester in 2001 and 2002 have previously achieved the so-called “double double” of European and domestic titles in successive seasons and Edinburgh will be welcoming a squad who firmly believe their best is yet to come. “We want to look back and be counted as one of the great teams,” confirmed Mako Vunipola. “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. We want to make our own legacy.”

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