Saracens 28 Sale 15: Sarries and Billy Vunipola still have work to do

 

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The Independent Online

Saracens’ mood was one of self-critical resolve rather than euphoria after they completed back-to-back wins over Sale Sharks in the European Champions Cup with a  28-15 success at Allianz Park on Saturday.

Saracens now need to win tough matches at home to Munster and away to Clermont Auvergne in January to be certain of qualifying for the quarter-finals, and while their No 8 Billy Vunipola was admitting a need to “work harder” to win his England place back after an autumn hampered by two episodes of concussion, his brother Mako said the loss of “big leaders” was being felt by last season’s Premiership and European runners-up.

Billy Vunipola scored one of Sarries’ three tries – the others came from Alex Goode and Ben Ransom – but he was dropped by England last month for the third autumn Test with Samoa. He also missed the fourth against Australia when he needed a week’s rest after a head knock, having also suffered concussion against Munster in October – an injury he said left him feeling “tentative going into collisions”.  Gloucester’s Ben Morgan shone in his place, but Vunipola’s dynamism and footballing aptitude were evident against a Sale team playing with no hope of qualification.

“Jacques [Burger, Saracens’ long-serving Namibian flanker] pointed out the other day that I am only 22 years old and I need to realise that,” said Vunipola. “I must not get overconfident and think things will come my way just because they have for the last year and a half. There are little extras you do after training [and] I kind of just waived them: rather than staying out for the extra five to 10 minutes, I thought I would be fine, and maybe that told in games. I started a bit too slow when I played against New Zealand.”

Mako Vunipola had six months out with a dislocated kneecap and reconstructed tendon earlier this year, but the loosehead prop was prominent for the second week running – Sarries won the reverse fixture 19-15 in Manchester nine days ago – with ruck turnovers and strong carries, much to the approval of Billy, who ran intuitive lines off his brother.

 

Mako agreed with the assertion that Saracens were currently below top form, but he said: “Getting to two finals last year, it was an extreme high for us as a team. Since then we have lost Schalk Brits [the injured hooker] and Steve Borthwick [the lock who retired in the summer], two big characters and big leaders, and we have had injuries.

“Steve was probably the best line-out caller in the Premiership, maybe in Europe. He’s a massive loss to any team. Alistair Hargreaves has stepped up to the captaincy and he has done a great job for us but it will take time, with new players coming in.”

Saracens led 11-8 at half-time after a try went begging with a howler by Dave Strettle, who dropped Chris Ashton’s pass close to the Sale goalline. Strettle went off concussed in the 20th minute. Owen Farrell landed three penalties and two conversions.

Sale coach Steve Diamond calibrated his sights on a top-six place in the Premiership, heartened by a try from the fit-again lock Nathan Hines and another at the death by Eifion Lewis-Roberts.

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