Billy Vunipola marked his return from a knee injury by helping Saracens to miserable Alex Sanderson’s return to north London as they rose to second place in the league.
The No. 8, dropped out of the Harlequins’ limp on October 31, showed a man-of-the-match performance that blended power with a dexterous touch. He was involved in the pioneering attempt when sale was down to 14 men and was 13 points behind thanks to some moron from Byron McGuigan four minutes earlier that had resulted in his being sent off for the second time in his career.
McGuigan was at the boiling point when he was stopped by Sean Maitland and refused an attempt, which the winger informed him of. He was even angrier when the exercise bike Nick Tompkins AJ MacGinty refused to try shortly afterwards and a fight broke out in the goal area. McGuigan grabbed Tompkins from behind and threw him to the ground before returning and eventually being sent off.
That paved the way for Vunipola’s big moment. He stepped on Sale defense near their 22 after showing off a classic dummy, then fired a 15-yard pass from his left hand at Maitland – who hit on the wing recently vacated by McGuigan.
Byron McGuigan from Sale sees the red card from Tom Foley. Photo: Garry Bowden / Rex / Shutterstock
Sanderson, the rugby sales director, said, “Byron trains at UFC in his spare time, so maybe he just had a flashback of some sort of ultimate fighting session that he did. I haven’t spoken to him. He’s a great guy, one of the hardest workers. The emotions, the occasion, the fact that we didn’t meet – I felt that too – probably defeated him. “
Vunipola had fallen out of favor with England and Eddie Jones before his injury, but a few more appearances like this could force a rethink.
“He’s been really good again and it’s a series of games he’s been putting together for the club all season,” said Mark McCall. “He’s been inspiring all along. Eddie has just asked him to continue supporting his accomplishments, and he definitely has. “
With McGuigan off the field, Sale actually grew into the game. They had lost their captain Jono Ross when he failed a head injury assessment in the first half but Tom Curry, who had returned from England, had to come off the bench for him.
Manu Tuilagi, who did not play at all, was a major loss while Saracens sidelined Owen Farrell and Jamie George after suffering injuries at England.
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Sanderson spent 17 years as a player and coach with Saracens before returning to Sale in January to begin his playing career. He was staying at his former Saracen colleague Kevin Sorrell’s house on Friday night, and the sales force planned to go to a Wandsworth pub on Sunday night before a trip to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.
But they went into the snow in frustration after Ben Curry and Raffi Quirke tried to re-enact his attempt at the support line in the second half for England against South Africa last weekend, gave them a taste of what could have been.
Between those two goals, Saracens conjured up a wonderful team performance, which Max Malins ended for his eighth attempt in three league games after a visionary spin and a pass from Alex Goode. While Sale has a goodbye week to look forward to, Saracens know they have more to offer in Exeter next weekend.
“I thought we were very good physically in the first half and in every game we played we were patchy,” said McCall. “It’s not the kind of team we want to be.”