Billy Vunipola in the spotlight as Saracens keep focus amid turmoil

Michael Aylwin at the Ricoh Arena


He must have thought he had begun to leave the last 10 days behind him. No sooner had Billy Vunipola scored the try that secured Saracens’ latest semi-final victory, that secured him the man-of-the-match award, than a Munster fan confronted him after the match, gesticulating aggressively. Vunipola jogged on in a lap of honour, but he knows his support of Israel Folau’s social‑media antics will not be so easy to leave behind.

If his performance, or that of his team, is anything to go by, the hostility will only serve to intensify Saracens’ focus, which sharpens where that of so many others might falter. As a name in the sporting world – or what their long-suffering chairman, Nigel Wray, might call a “brand” – Saracens continue to burn bright, despite the turmoil in which they have found themselves these past few weeks. They burn brightly because, despite it all, their raison d’être, the stuff they do on the pitch, retains its intensity whenever the occasion demands and belies the scale of the organisation it transcends.

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Saracens are in another major final. One of their several homegrown players, Jackson Wray, suggested in the week that they are inspired by the sense there is not a lot of love for them in the wider world. Another doyen, the captain and guardian of the flame, Brad Barritt, dismissed that notion, insisting that they focus only on themselves. Either way, the intensity is unarguable.

Munster won the battle of the travelling support, as ever, by a comfortable margin. Coventry was meant to represent home advantage of sorts to Saracens, but the stadium, barely half full, was dominated by the red of the Irish, whose mournful anthem rang loud and sure even after all hope seemed lost. If Saracens are the team everyone loves to hate – and relatively few feel inclined to travel to support – Munster are the opposite. Alas, the fabled 16th man makes only so much difference when opponents on the field are as fired up as this.

Saracens are still little more than a cult outfit, a modest rugby outpost in the football-mad north of London, but they, more than any of rugby’s other cult outposts in the landscape of English sport, work that very smallness of scale to their advantage. Like a pinpoint, like a laser, they focus their energy ever more ferociously, deepening the mark they leave on the vast outside world.

Intensity is a word safely applied to most professional rugby teams, but few embody it more completely than this side. One might have expected a collective of humans to have found the past few weeks Saracens have endured more than a little disconcerting. Investigations into their business practices, investigations into the opinions of one of their highest-profile players, even investigations into their form on the field. Recent defeats might not have featured the full rollcall of superstars, but the team suffering them have nevertheless borne that name, that brand, Saracens. Wobbles like that can spread throughout a club.

Disconcerting to most, but at Saracens the laser only sharpens against the outside. This match might have taken a fair bit of winning, but it was clear even from the start that Saracens were intent on doing just that. Munster’s ferocity in defence is well established. It is of itself enough to unsettle most teams. That they found themselves level as the first half ticked down to its conclusion was remarkable, such was the pressure applied by Saracens.

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The angles of their myriad runners, constantly changing, even at the very point of receipt of the pass; the delay on some of those passes; the disguise. All of it happens right in the face of the defence. Even the most brutal will give in the end, unless they can respond with some attacking intensity of their own, unless they can lift the siege with a bit of ball of their own. Saracens were in no mood to give any of that up easily. Just like that other team in black, they took the game away with scores either side of the break, a fourth Owen Farrell penalty on the stroke of half-time loosening Munster’s resolve, and a superbly worked try by Michael Rhodes at the start of the second half, followed smartly by penalties five and six, breaking it.

It was telling that Munster’s one try, on the hour, which did seem to precipitate a minor blip in Saracens’ composure, came from ball ceded carelessly by a Saracens scrum. Vunipola was implicated in that mix-up, just as he has been implicated in a whole lot more besides of late. He responded with the try in the final 10 minutes that put an end to any thoughts of a Saracens wobble.

He spoke afterwards of the love he has felt from his teammates, tender even as they prepare to sharpen their intensity. Saracens have struck upon a rare alchemy in that little lab of theirs among the giants of north London. They may have a long, long way to go to find a self-sustaining formula in the wider world, their methods questioned by the sceptics outside the changing room, but where it matters in sport, on the field, in the business of producing and polishing players, they have few equals in European rugby. It is a start.