Mark McCall confirms Billy Vunipola will be available to face Munster

Saracens coach says number eight in squad despite furore over social media remarks

Amid reports that Billy Vunipola will not be disciplined by the RFU after they sit down with him this week in light of his social media remarks supporting Israel Folau’s stance that hell awaits homosexuals amongst others, Mark McCall has intimated that the English number eight will play against Munster in next Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final in Coventry’s Ricoh Arena.

The Saracens director of rugby had said the booing of Vunipola after his 51st minute introduction off the bench in his side’s surprising loss to Bristol last Saturday had been “unexpected”.

In the aftermath of that defeat, courtesy of a late Ian Madigan penalty, McCall had also steered clear of the furore by stating “my opinion is not that relevant”, and as regards whether Vunipola would play against Munster, said: “It is seven days away and we have to look at it”.

Speaking by conference call to the Irish media, McCall was asked if Vunipola would be available for selection, said: “Billy will be available, yeah”.


Otherwise, pending Vunipola’s meeting with the RFU this week and Saracens’ own internal investigation, not surprisingly McCall was not of a mind to take any questions relating to Vunipola’s comments.

Also embroiled in an investigation by Premiership Rugby regarding alleged breaches of the salary cap, Saracens have been caught in the eye of a storm. Approaching their sixth semi-final in the last seven seasons under McCall’s watch, all of this, of course, may merely make them circle the wagons in time-honoured fashion.

It is also expected that the Red Army will outnumber Saracens’ support in Coventry come kick-off, but again history has shown us that this is unlikely to bother the champions of 2016 and 2017.

“Ah yeah, I think there’s a good chance that Munster will have more supporters than we do. Our supporters are great, they’re good, but they’re maybe not as big in numbers. It’s something that we’re accustomed to if we’re honest and obviously in the semi-final there were, I don’t know, 45,000 Munster fans,” said McCall in reference to the sides’ last meeting, also at this stage two seasons ago at the Aviva Stadium, when Saracens won 26-10.

“I think our group are used to big occasions, they relish good atmospheres, they relish that kind of thing. I don’t think it’s something that we’ll worry too much about.”

Renewed hunger

McCall believes Saracens are in a “healthier” place than was the case when running into Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in last season’s quarter-finals, which also came on the back of Ireland winning the Grand Slam.

“We had some players who weren’t around for that match; Billy [Vunipola] being one, Michael Rhodes being another, Vincent Koch and a few others. I think we are a bit healthier this time around. We have more or less got the squad that we want to have available,” said McCall, who believes captain Brad Barritt will have recovered fully from the ankle sprain he sustained in their handsome quarter-final win over Glasgow.

“I think we are in a better frame of mind than we were last year,” added McCall, mindful that last season’s quarter-final defeat has also heightened their motivation to reclaim the Heineken Champions Cup this year.

“It was a painful experience the way we lost in the Aviva. That said, I think this group have grown to love this competition. This is our sixth semi-final in seven years, which is something we can be proud of, but we want to go all the way if we can. So there was definitely a renewed hunger this season when the competition began.

“I think some of the Premiership teams might target the Premiership but I know for our group they see this as the pinnacle and a competition they really, really want to do well in.”

McCall believes that “it’s dangerous to look back too far” in reference to their semi-final win over Munster, and was more concerned with the latter’s performances against Exeter and Gloucester.

After Saturday’s defeat with very much a second string team, Saracens sit second in the Premiership, eight points behind Exeter and eight ahead of Gloucester in third. Munster’s displays demonstrated to McCall “just how tough they are to break down, how tough they are to play against. It’s difficult to get quick ball against them”.

“Their defence is the area that I see as the thing that they have most improved. It’s difficult to win set-piece ball against them and I think they have added some strings to their bow in attack, so they’re just a really good all round team and they did a very good job at home to Exeter, who are flying in our competition over here and I think Exeter scored a try after seven or eight minutes that day and then kept them scoreless apart from that, which was a hell of an achievement.”

“I think it will be a really close contest all the way through and it’s a matter of winning inches and then yards for large parts of the match, and you’ve got to be good enough to take advantage of the chances that you’ve got and be resilient when they’ve got it.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times