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Saracens explain why Billy Vunipola had his game time restricted

By Liam Heagney
Saracens' Billy Vunipola at Ashton Gate (Photo by Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images)

Saracens have played down the limited role Billy Vunipola was given in their excellent 41-20 win at Bristol on Saturday. The bonus-point victory qualified them for the end-of-season Gallagher Premiership play-offs and left them in the driving seat to clinch a home semi-final on June 1.

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Now back in second place, they are a point clear of Bath and four ahead of Sale who visit the StoneX in London next Saturday in the final round of the regular season.

That is a match Mark McCall believes will be hard won as he suggested post-game at Ashton Gate that the Sharks “are a hell of a challenge to play against”.

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Sale will surely feel the same given how clinical Saracens were in picking off Bristol, overcoming an early 3-13 deficit to lead 23-13 at the interval.

They then fought resiliently during the eight second-half minutes where the overlapping yellow cards for Maro Itioje and Ben Earl temporarily left them two players short.

The knock-on effect was that it altered McCall’s thinking about his bench use and it resulted in Vunipola getting just nine minutes in his first outing since he was arrested by Spanish police and fined for the well-publicised incident that unfolded in a Mallorca bar.

While Saracens quickly deemed the matter closed, explaining they would take no further action against Vunipola, he was issued a warning by the RFU on Thursday regarding his behaviour and the incident will remain on his record for five years.

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His off-the-field shenanigans meant there was focus on him in Bristol, but the game was already essentially over by the time he belatedly replaced Tom Willis in the 71st minute.

One of Saracens’ many impressive recruits for the 2023/24 season, Willis was starting his third successive league match at No8, leaving Vunipola on the replacements bench where he left stewing for most of the afternoon.

“We wanted to use our six/two bench well today,” explained McCall in the aftermath. “It was going to be a fatiguing match the way that they [Bristol] play. The plan would have been to bring the whole tight five on with 30 minutes to go, which we couldn’t do as Maro was in the sin bin.

“We brought four of them on (Theo Dan, Eroni Mawi, Ollie Hoskins, and Nick Isiekwe). I thought our starting tight five did an incredible job and the guys who came on backed that up, which is what we wanted.”

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When the Itoje sin-binning ended with 19 minutes remaining, the lock stayed on the sidelines as Theo McFarland was ushered into the fray with the score at 29-20, and it left Vunipola benched until after Saracens took full control with tries from Rotimi Segun and the immensely impressive Juan Martin Gonzalez.

“Billy is then the last cab off the rank as your sixth forward once you decide to bring the other five on. We had a couple of little issues with some of the back row which we needed to clear up. We wanted to give Billy longer but Billy understands.”

Fixture
Gallagher Premiership
Bristol
20 - 41
Full-time
Saracens
All Stats and Data

At Bristol, the respective coaching teams were seated in the media box and McCall and his staff, which this week included Brendan Venter on a flying visit from South Africa, were frequently heard loudly cheering their team on to their important victory.

“I just enjoy a team who work like that for each other through the ups and downs of the game. That’s what we have lacked in some of the games that we have had the tough team moments, to be honest. It’s been good the last couple of weeks.

“We didn’t start the game great to be honest. They dominated a lot of the collisions early doors. We were 10-0, 13-3 down but proud of how we fought our way out of that bit of a tough situation and wrestled the momentum and initiative back ourselves.

“Then going down to 13 men was a key part of the match having got ourselves a good lead and played well. We handled that period down to 13 superbly well because it is just never about out-and-out effort during that period. You have got to make a lot of smart decisions. You have got to have really clear heads and I thought we did that.

“Our defensive performance was as good as I can remember for a good while and that required a lot of good decisions from people but also a lot of covering of backs when people didn’t get it quite right because they are such a handful in attack to deal with.

“What I enjoyed about the Bath game was how well we reacted to everything and anything and it was the same again today. When we react to good things that happen or setbacks that happen in the way that we have done in the last two games, we are a really good team if we can keep clear heads all the way through like we managed these last two games.

“Both games have been very different. We have had to win in different ways. I am really pleased we were able to manage that.”

Skipper Owen Farrell played excellently, but he stopped place-kicking during the first half. Elliot Daly took over, scoring 16 out of a possible 18 points. The injury was no major drama.

“He [Farrell] just had a tightness in his groin and the place kicking was affecting that, so Elliot just stepped up and away he went… for a guy who never practices. It was a bit of a slight groin awareness and place kicking was aggravating it.”

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