Billy Vunipola chisels prize-fighters apart: the British press react
There’s plenty of praise for Saracens’ power game as number eight steals the headlines
Saracens celebrate their win over Leinster in Newcastle. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/Inpho
The king is dead, long live the king. Leinster’s European crown has been taken - brutally snatched from their grasp by Saracens in Newcastle.
Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final was one one of the most eagerly awaited club rugby matches of all time - a meeting of two generational giants.
Often games like these are hyped so much they are doomed to disappoint, but the two best sides on the continent delivered an evening to remember at St James’ Park - with the English challengers running out 20-10 winners.
It was a match which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the latter stages of this year’s Rugby World Cup, with both teams playing at a breathless intensity usually reserved for top level Test matches.
Saracens victory was undoubtedly deserved, but Leinster will leave Tyneside dogged with regret. Poor decision making, poor execution and their inability to live with the physicality of the English Premiership side all contributed to the province’s demise.
As with England’s win over Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in February, Saracens’ victory was built on their pack and, as the game wore on, their domination on the gainline.
And one man has come in for plaudits in the media on both sides of the Irish sea after he delivered a phenomenal display is Saracens’ number eight Billy Vunipola.
The 26-year-old has courted controversy recently for his comments in the wake of Israel Folau’s dispute with Rugby Australia. On Saturday he let his rugby do the talking, and ultimately proved the difference between the sides.
In The Guardian, Rob Kitson writes: “Just occasionally two teams can be so evenly matched it is almost impossible to separate them. Initially this was one of those contests, so tight it practically required a chisel to prise the prize-fighters apart.
“Until, that is, someone stood up and decided to take matters into their own, huge hands. Billy Vunipola is not everyone’s favourite athlete right now but no one can deny his relish for the big occasion.
“If the boos that greeted him at various points on a cool north-east afternoon were intended to throw the England number eight off his game they did not succeed.”
Vunipola was a giant on both sides of the ball, and it was his 67th-minute try which sealed Saracens’ third European crown and their third in four seasons.
In The Sunday Telegraph, Daniel Schofield writes: “Billy Vunipola was at the heart of their renaissance. The England number eight, booed throughout by Leinster’s support, had been effectively bottled up in the first half.
“After halftime, the genie was unleashed. Again and again, he rampaged over the advantage line, leaving Leinster’s defenders in full-on panic mode.”
Vunipola epitomised Saracens’ physical edge against a Leinster pack who are hardly a collection of shrinking violets. As Stephen Jones writes in the Sunday Times, they “played an outstanding team to a complete standstill.”
“One long run from Rob Kearney apart, the Leinster attack - or what passed for it - was remorselessly and relentlessly driven clean out of the occasion and the contest. . .the tackling was murderous.”
Also in The Sunday Times, Stuart Barnes writes that Owen Farrell won the battle of the outhalves with Johnny Sexton - although, again, it was his pack and the Saracens defence who allowed him to dictate the tempo.
“The speed of Saracens’ defence was seminal yesterday. Game plans are forged off the field but the flyhalves have to be capable to self-analysis in the face of the rapid rearguard Saracens bring to the park.
“Farrell, against a less aggressive defence, was pretty much untroubled in a way Sexton was not.”
Between them Leinster and Saracens have now won seven of the last 11 European Cups (Toulon and Toulouse sweeping up the other four), but there is a sense in the UK that Saracens’ win yesterday makes them the undisputed dominant force in Europe.
Indeed, in the Daily Mail (UK), Nik Simon writes: “This was confirmation of the Saracens era. This victory underlined their status as rugby’s dominant team of the late 2010s and that indeed was something worth celebrating.
“It was the final that everyone wanted to see and the pedigree — there were 28 internationals in the starting line-ups — translated into performance.”
And there seems to be a unanimous agreement that Saturday’s match delivered as a spectacle with Newcastle - a city synonymous with football - providing the perfect stage for the final act.
In the Guardian, Rob Kitson writes: “It made for a grand occasion. Periodically rugby can feel a little trivial, a good-humoured cousin to football that knows its place. No longer, on this evidence.
“St James’ Park has already tasted a bit of Rugby World Cup action and here was further proof, for those open-minded enough to give it a try, that the oval-ball game can stand on its own two feet anywhere without artificial gimmicks or cheap ticket giveways.”
And this view is echoed by Stephen Jones, again in The Sunday Times: “As an occasion, it was everything the organisers wanted, because this great football city was partially taken over, for a couple of days, by that wicked implement, the oval ball.”
Saracens might be the new kings of Europe, but they shouldn’t get too commfortable. Leinster will come again.