Streetwise return by Saracens
By Nik Simon RUGBY WRITER OF THE YEAR AT STONEX STADIUM
OTHER than the new owners, the new stadium name and a few new players, this almost felt like old times for Saracens. It was a long way from being a vintage performance but it was a win nonetheless, with the same old names grabbing the headlines. Step forward Jamie George, Mako Vunipola and Billy Vunipola. The three England outcasts have not been feeling much love from Eddie Jones but here they received no shortage of adoration. Since Saracens’ last game in front of a full home crowd back in March 2020, the club have been dragged through the Championship and their reputation dragged through the mud. Yet most of their supporters have stuck by them and yesterday they stood to salute George and the Vunipola brothers, who scored a try each to wipe out Newcastle’s 17-3 lead. ‘Of course, those guys are desperate to get back in it with England,’ said Saracens coach Mark McCall. ‘They are motivated players. ‘Mako’s was excellent and Jamie was outstanding — the more they play the better they will be. Billy’s played very well in all three games.’ McCall’s words of praise would not extend to the opening half an hour. Their first halfperformance was littered by handling errors and ill-discipline, from the moment Sean Maitland clobbered Brett Connon in the face. His swinging arm left the Newcastle fly-half with a nosebleed and the coaching box called for a red card, but Tempest settled for a yellow. With the one-man advantage, Newcastle took their chance. This was the start of a new era for full-back Mike Brown, who marked his Newcastle debut with a 16th minute try, running a hard line off a ruck. Then Billy Vunipola was stripped in the tackle while running the ball out of his own 22, and Ben Stevenson scored an opportunist try to dampen the mood of the homecoming. Saracens grew frustrated. Owen Farrell looked like a man who would start a fight with a mirror. Newcastle extended their lead after Marco Riccioni shoved Trevor Davison, but the momentum swung when Dom Morris sparked the contest with a huge hit on Connon in midfield. ‘In the first 30 minutes we just couldn’t get any rhythm,’ added McCall. ‘We’re nowhere near where we want to be, to be honest, but we showed composure to come back.’ Saracens tightened up their set-piece game, earning a penalty try just before half time, as George McGuigan was sinbinned for collapsing a maul. Penalty after penalty went the way of Saracens and they made it pay. George scored from a tap-and-go, before Mako Vunipola added the third when he splintered off a driving maul. ‘It’s about being streetwise,’ said Newcastle coach Dean Richards. ‘We didn’t do that. Owen Farrell was in the referee’s ear the whole time — it changed the momentum of the game. There was a passage of play where they went off their feet twice and a ruck. Three offences and then we committed a very minor one on the far side, but the referee penalised us.’ The penalties kept coming. Tempest penalised Newcastle a staggering 21 times, which allowed Farrell to keep edging his side out of reach. Then in the final play, Saracens kicked to the corner in search of the bonus-point try. Seizing the opportunity, Billy Vunipola shunted over from short-range, as if he had never been away.