‘What we needed from him was to do his talking on the field, not off the field’

Murray Kinsella reports from St James’ Park

THE MAN WEARING Saracens’ number eight shirt was close to unstoppable at times.

Certainly for his game-sealing try, Billy Vunipola proved too much for Leinster, as Rhys Ruddock, Johnny Sexton, James Lowe and Luke McGrath were beaten by the England international.

Vunipola with the Heineken Champions Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

16 carries for 63 metres reads impressively but Vunipola’s impact on the Heineken Champions Cup final was about more than just the numbers. His ability to swing momentum into Saracens’ favour was game-defining.

There were intercepts of Johnny Sexton passes and big hits to go along with his ball-carrying prowess, as the 26-year-old delivered a performance that was more deserving of a man-of-the-match award than his semi-final showing against Munster.

Vunipola wasn’t given that honour in this final but his influence was impossible to ignore. Booed into the stadium by Leinster fans and booed off the pitch when he was replaced late on, the Sydney native showed his world-class qualities as Saracens secured their third European title.

Vunipola recently defended Israel Folau’s homophobic social media post and subsequently shared his own controversial Instagram message, but Saracens were pleased to see him delivering on the pitch.

“It’s obviously been a complicated five or six weeks, I guess, for him and for the squad, to be honest, as well,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall after his side’s 20-10 win.

“What we needed from him was to do his talking on the field, not off the field. He has been really good and his team-mates have supported him really well.”

Vunipola was part of a sublime team effort from Saracens, who handled a first-half yellow card for blindside flanker Maro Itoje with composure.

“It was almost like the Maro yellow card released us and allowed us to play our game,” said Sarries captain Brad Barritt.

Vunipola enjoys Saracens’ success. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“The players spoke about how it felt a bit different when Maro went off,” added McCall. “As Brad said, we freed ourselves up.

“We weren’t terrible in the first 25 minutes, we were a little bit off in a couple of areas. The players felt that there was more in them and they were right because the second half was way better than the first.”

Saracens won that second half 10-0 in an absorbing contest and will now move on to their aim of securing a fifth Premiership title under McCall.

The Irishman’s record with the English club is spectacular but one of the reasons he feels they have been successful is the quality of the players he works with and their ability to make decisions for themselves.

“You’d love to be in the dressing room at half time to hear what the players are talking about, not the coaches,” said McCall. “Thankfully, we generally agree with what they are saying but they are leading it, feeling it.

“We don’t wait for half-time to deliver those messages because they are being delivered on the field. Today we needed to have a really intense physical performance but we also needed to be clever. We married those two things really well today.”

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