Saracens’ trophy hunters may not have achieved greatness yet, but Billy Vunipola believes they are striving to bring Barcelona-esque levels of domination to European rugby.
Champions Cup final
The Londoners claimed their second straight Champions Cup on Saturday and will next week look to take another step towards a third Aviva Premiership crown in as many years.
Yet Vunipola still does not believe the feats performed by Mark McCall’s team allow them to be included in the pantheon of sport’s blue- riband line-ups.
As far as the England number eight is concerned, the benchmark is the achievements mustered by Lionel Messi and his Catalan counterparts on the football field.
Sarries still have work to do to reach those levels, but the 24-year-old reckons victory in next weekend’s Premiership semi-final showdown with Exeter will put them another step closer.
“A great team is Barcelona, a team who wins everything,” said Vunipola after his side sealed their latest triumph with a 28-17 win over Clermont Auvergne at BT Murrayfield. “I think we’re striving towards that.
“But we will see. We have a massive game next week and if we win that it will give ourselves the chance to step up the ladder towards greatness. It’s very early days and we still have a lot of work to do before I’d feel comfortable standing here and saying we’re a great team. We’re a young team and we have more time, but only if we stay focused and grounded. It’s easy to say we’re all young and a lot of success has come early, so we’ll win a few more trophies.
“But you have to work for it. You have to fight for it.”
The English champions were made to battle all the way to retain the European crown they won for the first time last year.
Scores from Chris Ashton and George Kruis put them in command early on but Clermont hit back.
When Nick Abendanon finished off a move that started under the Top 14 giants’ posts midway through the second-half to draw them to within a point, it appeared Sarries’ resolve was about to fail.
But the test of true champions is the ability to grind out results when things are not going their way, and McCall’s team gritted their teeth before sealing victory with Alex Goode’s late touchdown.
“It was nice because finals are always supposed to be tight,” said Vunipola. “As we were walking back to halfway Faz (Owen Farrell) said to me, ‘Let’s fight’. I was like, ‘All right, let’s do it’.
“It was good to show everybody we could get back off the canvas.”
Vunipola was named man of the match as the final whistle sounded in Edinburgh, but it was colleague Farrell who was crowned the Champions Cup’s player of the tournament and was presented with the inaugural Anthony Foley Memorial Trophy after the final whistle.
Yet the England fly-half’s successes are of little surprise to his fellow British and Irish Lions call-up. “Faz is only 25 but he is the hungriest player out there in terms of rugby,” said Vunipola. “It’s amazing for someone so young to be so driven.
“He’s a bit like Kobe Bryant. He gets annoyed at everyone and everyone gets annoyed when he shouts at them.
“But you can see where he’s coming from. He just wants everyone to perform at his level. He’s been named player of the tournament and that just shows you what an amazing player he is.”
There were also pats on the back for departing wing Ashton as he claimed the Champions Cup try-scoring record when he crossed over for his 37th competition try.
“We’re going to miss him next year,” said Vunipola ahead of Ashton’s move to Toulon. “He’s not just a great rugby player but a great character.
“His record is testament to how hard he works off his wing and how much work he does away from prying eyes.
“But, as he says, it’s about the team. If he’s scoring we’re happy. If he’s not then he’s not happy and we don’t really care.”
Spedding; Strettle, Rougerie, Lamerat, Abendanon; Lopez, Parra; Chaume, Kayser, Zirakashvili, Iturria, Vahaamahina, Chouly, Yato, Lee.
Fernandez for Spedding (70), Penaud for Rougerie (53), Radosavljevic for Parra (74), Falgoux for Chaume (53), Ulugia for Kayser (66), Jarvis for Zirakashvili (76), Jedrasiak for Vahaamahina (45), Lapandry for Yato (60).
Goode; Ashton, Bosch, Barritt, Wyles; Farrell, Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, George, Koch, Itoje, Kruis, Rhodes, Wray, B Vunipola.
Spencer for Wigglesworth (78), Lamositele for M Vunipola (76), Brits for George (50), Du Plessis for Koch (78), Hamilton for Itoje (78), S Burger for Wray (60), Taylor for Barritt (54).
Nigel Owens (Wales).
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