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The 'lovely moment' that stood out for Mark McCall when Saracens learned Billy Vunipola hadn't made the Lions

By Liam Heagney

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Despite all the column inches and airtime dedicated to how Saracens might suffer when it came to 2021 Lions selection, the English Championship club scored a victory last Thursday when they emerged with the biggest representation in Warren Gatland’s squad for South Africa.

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Sixteen different clubs were recognised in the squad with Mark McCall’s Londoners emerging as the team with the biggest representation in garnering five picks to four each for last season’s double winners Exeter, repeat PRO14 champions Leinster and Scarlets.

However, their joy for Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola was tempered by sadness that the names of Sean Maitland and Billy Vunipola weren’t called out in an alphabetical order backs and then forwards announcement that ultimately left the Saracens squad silent.

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In that sad moment, though, coach McCall could see positivity as it highlighted to him how united a squad he has at his disposal. “We were in on a training day and we manufactured the day in such a way that when the announcement was made the players could be where they wanted to be,” he explained.

A big bulk of the squad were in the team room watching it and a number of the players whose names could have been read out weren’t here and chose to listen to the news alone.

“They [the squad] were over the moon for the five who went. Every time a name was called out the room went mad but it was funny because they did it in alphabetical order and it so happened that Billy was the last on our list of people who could have gone.

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“It went from jubilation to the opposite of that, to be honest, and everybody left the room quietly because they were so disappointed for Billy, which I thought was a lovely moment. Billy wasn’t in the room but it said a lot about how the group feel about him.”

Having had no match last weekend, Saracens are back in tier-two action next Monday when 2,000 fans will be able to watch them host Ampthill at the StoneX Stadium. Asked how Vunipola is coping with his Lions omission in the build-up to this game, McCall added: “Billy is, as you would imagine, disappointed like a lot of players around the country.

“Everybody wants to go and Billy is one of those players who was absolutely desperate to go on that tour. It is the pinnacle and he was desperate to go. He understands these are tough choices for the coach, for Warren Gatland, and selection is subjective.

“We will support him like we always do. He’s a hugely valuable member of our squad but he has had a number of setbacks, mostly injury-related rather than selection-related down the years. This has been his safe place and he has always chucked himself into the club and the friendships that he has here, and that is what he will do I’m sure.”

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Switching to the Saracens contingent that will be travelling as Lions, McCall continued: “We’re thrilled for them, it’s a huge achievement for both Owen and Mako to be on their third tour and Maro, Elliot and Jamie to be in there on their second tour. It’s absolutely brilliant for those five guys and we’re disappointed for Billy and Sean who we would have loved to have gone.

“We’re pleased about that (level of representation) on a number of levels but mostly because some of our younger contingent, the guys who are home-grown and have come through our academy and are 19, 20, 21, 22 now, they can see a route to that position.

“At one point, Mako, Jamie and Maro, they were all in the academy and they came through in that way and for them to think that they can all achieve that if they can stay here and progress in the manner that those players did so, that is probably the most important part of it.”

With the Championship campaign set to ramp up with Saracens playing twice in five days as the race shortens to next month’s promotion playoff target, McCall reiterated that the Lions will be getting players well-seasoned by their involvement in these matches.

“All those players played ten or eleven international games this season in the last four or five months. All the games that we are playing right now have got some meaning to them because we can’t afford to lose any of them and hopefully if we make it to the top two which is the plan.

“We have got some really, really, really significant matches against Ealing who are in my opinion a Premiership side and it’s hugely important games, knockout games, and in terms of them getting onto the plane having played good high level, competitive rugby, those games will help them.”

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The 'lovely moment' that stood out for Mark McCall when Saracens learned Billy Vunipola hadn't made the Lions

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