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Alex Sanderson recalls a booze-fuelled fight with Billy Vunipola

By Liam Heagney
Saracens' Billy Vunipola (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

Alex Sanderson has paid tribute to Mako and Billy Vunipola, the brothers whose exit from Saracens was confirmed on Tuesday by the London club.

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Now working as the Sale director of rugby, Sanderson is due to bring his Sharks to the StoneX this Saturday looking for a result against the second-place team to qualify his fourth-place side for the Gallagher Premiership semi-finals.

That visit will provide the former Saracens assistant coach with the opportunity to salute the Vunipolas in person for their exploits with the Londoners this last decade, a journey that Sanderson was involved in until January 2022 when he decided to take up his boss role at Sale.

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Mako arrived at Saracens from Bristol in 2011, with Billy following from Wasps two years later, and Sanderson outlined his respect for the pair during his weekly media briefing ahead of this weekend’s round 18 league fixture.

Sanderson’s former boss Mark McCall initially paid tribute to the Vunipolas, describing the brothers as two of the keenest rugby player minds he had ever come across. He predicted they could have a future in coaching whenever they do stop playing.

Asked for his take on the 33- and 31-year-old Vunipolas, who have been linked with a switch to Montpellier next season, Sanderson told a media audience that included RugbyPass: “I haven’t heard his comments.”

That, though, didn’t stop him from going on and delving into his memory bank, explaining his first impression of Mako as a 17-year-old and also revealing an incident with a p***ed-up Billy in a Croatian bar.

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“I’ll just take you back: I coached Mako when he was 17 at school. It was my second coaching gig after the Reds. I went to Eddie Jones at the Reds, a baptism of fire. Came back, worked for the RFU, coached England U18s.

“And Mako was in that squad and he couldn’t do a backward roly-poly at the time. It was funny. My missus still remembers it. This is like 15 years ago, I’m sure. I said, ‘Have a look at this kid, he can’t do a backward roly-poly. But geez could he play rugby!

“He was out of shape and he had grey hair at 17; he’d lost his passport surely ’cause he is not 17. But he could play.

“His outputs and his involvements in the game, even back then when he wasn’t in great condition, showed his ability to read a game, to find the ball, to pop up in areas defensively where he had impact both sides of the ball. And that was back then.

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“And then I met Billy. It’s funny innit? I don’t think of the rugby acuteness when I think of them two.

“I remember being sat next to Billy after the Heineken Cup final that was lost against Toulon (in 2014) and he was inconsolable and it’s things like that that bind you to players.

“Sorry (Sanderson, getting emotional, wipes his eye)… We had a fight on a p*** up in a bar in Croatia. A bit of a fight. He threw a cork and it hit me in the eye. He was p***ed. I don’t think he has drunk since then. And when I left he sent me a letter apologising, that was 10 years after, for that incident which I had buried the day after so.

“Rugby-wise, yeah, brilliant players. Men? None better. None better blokes. Really fortunate to have known them.”

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