Billy Vunipola was in Tiggerish mood against the Leicester Tigers as Saracens stayed on top of the Premiership with a six-try, 49-10 win at Allianz Park. The all-action England No 8, playing on Sarries’ blind-side flank, spilt a coupled of restarts amid the wind and rain, scooped up an errant opposition put-in at the scrum, scored a third-quarter try and stepped mischievously into every position at rucks and mauls: offside and on.
Vunipola was not the only reason Leicester were walloped by a record margin in 27 seasons of league rugby – the match took almost every possible lurch around rugby’s moral maze, containing the semblance of a tip tackle, a concussive head knock to Owen Farrell and a forward pass that never was – but the Anglo-Tongan colossus bounced around to the leaders’ considerable advantage.
The margin was one point worse for Leicester than the 47-9 beating they took at Bath in April 1997, when a congested fixture list was partly to blame. Something similar could be said of them turning up to Saracens’ artificial pitch for the first time with an injury-ravaged squad and the tight-head prop Dan Cole left out to comply with an England rest period.
Saracens are not free from injury either but they launched their returning England loosehead Mako Vunipola from the bench and were bound to be fresher from their European fortnight facing Zebre compared with Leicester’s games against Montpellier.
“The scrum went down a few times but the boys did really well up front,” said Billy Vunipola. “Leicester are the biggest team in England and we played well. It is a testament to how we train – we just give everything.”
With 37 minutes gone, Saracens were 13-10 up. Then Leicester’s Graham Kitchener went to the sin bin for a marginally late, semi-tip tackle on Farrell, followed by Chris Ashton scoring a try for Saracens from a pass by Chris Wyles that may have been forward. Both times, the replay button was pressed repeatedly by Graham Hughes, the television match official, before the referee Wayne Barnes finally ruled on what he had seen on the big screen himself.
It was frustrating, partly because television tends to turn the continuum of rugby’s domino effects into a series of singular acts. The forward-pass law is being minced into a mess of dubious physics and, while no one wants foul play to go unpunished, the price is a loss of faith in the likes of Barnes, England’s top Test referee, who had the country’s most experienced touch judge, Robin Goodliffe, looking down the line of Wyles’ pass.
It was 28-10, after Vunipola’s score, when Farrell was hurt making a tackle that sandwiched him between Ryan Lamb and Niki Goneva. The England fly-half will now be subject to the return-to-play protocol, possibly keeping him out of Saracens’ match at Worcester, while Leicester will expect much better at home to Sale and Bath.
“Owen was walking around afterwards but he is missing the Christmas party tonight,” Vunipola said. “I just saw him flying out of defence and that he stopped them and gave us possession. It is that kind of commitment that goes with winning rugby.”