Dextrous Vunipola may transform the way others play the forward role
Sarries forward offers something completely different for England and the Lions
Mark McCall is quite possibly the last person on earth to look at his chosen sport through the prism of celebrity – raised in the workaholics' paradise of Ulster rugby, he is deeply suspicious of the cult of the individual – so it was no great surprise when he responded to yet another question about Owen Farrell with a rolling of the eyes and a raising of the brows. Yet the Saracens coach knows better than anyone that he has a star on his hands. And no, we're not talking about the England outside-half.
It is not inconceivable that Farrell's stock will rise to Jonny Wilkinson levels between now and the home World Cup in 2015 – even now, he does things that are beyond the saintly No 10, as he demonstrated at the weekend by hitting the Bath midfielder Tom Heathcote with a high tackle as mean as it was illegal – but by that time, the red rose selectors are likely to be more excited by the No 1 position.
If Mako Vunipola's name is not the first on the teamsheet, something very odd will have happened. Last week, when the British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland revealed and then explained his left-field choices for the forthcoming tour of Australia, he said he had turned to players who offered "a point of difference". Vunipola was one of them, and with good reason. Not only does he offer a point of difference; he also scores points in different ways to everyone else.
The try he scored early in the second quarter of Saturday's game – a touchdown that took Saracens into a 13-point lead and pretty much guaranteed that they would end the league phase of the Premiership campaign on top of the table – was not obviously a thing of beauty. Grace and radiance are, almost by definition, beyond the scope of people who tip the scales at the best part of 20st and play rugby with their socks round their ankles and their shorts in the same place. But anyone who can maintain balance in six inches of space close to the corner flag and ground the ball legitimately despite being clattered by opponents as physically threatening as the Fijian wing Semesa Rokoduguni and the Springbok flanker Francois Louw has an elegance all of his own.
Two minutes later, Vunipola set sail again, rumbling towards the Bath 22 before freeing Chris Ashton to the line with a wondrous pass out of contact. Sadly, the pass was ruled marginally forward – indeed, the margin was so small, it sparked a long and ultimately fruitless debate about the laws of physics pertaining to the flight of a ball propelled by a moving object – but in the end, it didn't much matter. There is barely another tight forward anywhere capable of offloading with such dexterity, within the law or outside it.
Together with his fellow surprise Lions package, Matt Stevens, the naturalised Tongan also made his presence felt at the set-piece, although just as in the Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Ulster at Twickenham, he had to swallow some pride early on and rethink his approach to the close-quarter duties in order to find salvation. Once Vunipola completes his scrummaging education – he may look 48, but he does not turn 23 until after Christmas – England will not just have the best loose-head prop in the sport, but a player capable of transforming the way people in his position play the game.
Bath used to have one of those, but the name of David Sole, a Lions Test prop in Australia in 1989, takes some remembering these days. It is also a fair old while since the West Countrymen were masters of all they surveyed. Saracens had already nailed down a home semi-final in this competition and were as flat as pancakes after being Wilko'd out of the Heineken Cup the previous weekend, but there was barely a moment when they seemed vulnerable to opponents sorely lacking in creative spark.
Mike Ford, the England defence coach at the last World Cup and an important member of the four-man cabinet currently in governance on the banks of the Avon, admitted afterwards that his side could use a dash of something out of the ordinary. "What we've concentrated on in our first season here is the culture: we wanted to lay the right foundations," he said. "But looking to next season, we've recruited people we think can play in a certain way: bright young British talent who can move our attacking game in another direction. I think there are exciting times ahead."
To that end, Bath are still talking to the much-travelled, much-maligned Welsh midfielder Gavin Henson. "We have room for a third player in the 10/12 department," Ford confirmed. They would also happily kill for the signature of the Lions No 8 Toby Faletau, currently stuck with the financially challenged and competitively marginalised Newport Gwent Dragons. While Faletau is more of a medium-term objective than an immediate target, a large number of deals have already been completed. As a result, the coaches are about to replace the team bequeathed to them with one of their own design.
Who knows? Ford's son, the undeniably gifted outside-half George, could be the man-child to give the ambitious Bath owner Bruce Craig a return on his investment. If not him, the England centre Jonathan Joseph might turn the kind of trick craved by punters in the rickety old Recreation Ground stands. Or maybe the current full-back Ollie Devoto is the one. There were moments at the weekend when he looked a proper player.
But there are other clubs out there who are ahead of the pack, especially when it comes to the pack. Vunipola is worth at least two of Bath's major back-line signings, and probably three. To think he learnt his rugby in Bristol, a dozen miles down the road.
Scorers: Saracens: Tries Ashton, Vunipola, Farrell; Conversion Farrell; Penalties Farrell 2.
Bath: Tries Webber, Agulla; Conversions Heathcote 2.
Saracens: C Wyles; C Ashton (J Maddock 70), J Tomkins, O Farrell, D Strettle; C Hodgson (D Taylor 54), N De Kock (R Wigglesworth 52); M Vunipola (R Gill 60), S Brits (J Smit 54), M Stevens (C Nieto 60), S Borthwick (capt, M Botha 52), A Hargreaves (G Kruis 70), K Brown, A Saull, J Wray.
Bath: O Devoto; S Rokoduguni, B Williams, K Eastmond (T Biggs h-t), H Agulla; T Heathcote, M Claassens (P Stringer 66); P James (N Catt 62), R Webber (R Batty 47), D Wilson (A Perenise 60), D Day (W Spencer 48), D Attwood, F Louw (capt), G Mercer (M Gilbert 57), S Taylor (N Koster 70).
Referee: M Fox (Leicestershire).
Lions watch: tour pointers
Manu Tuilagi: Solid as ever, drew the defence for Mathew Tait's try.
Ben Youngs: Scored a good try and looked close to his threatening best.
Dan Cole: Came off the bench but not enough time to make an impact.
Tom Youngs: Threw well, his usual energetic self, replaced late on.
Geoff Parling: Played well and combined quick hands with Tom Youngs to set up first try.
Tom Croft: Finished off first try well, a real threat anywhere on the pitch.
Dylan Hartley: Ill-disciplined at times, but finished a driving maul to score.
Owen Farrell: Scored 13 points playing at 12, including the third try.
Mako Vunipola: Showed why Gatland put faith in him, getting on the score sheet. Replaced after 50 minutes.
Matt Stevens: The surprise pick of the squad, but nothing to shout about against Bath on Saturday.
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