It is a measure of the quality in play at tomorrow’s Heineken Champions Cup final that there is so much mutual respect between the two teams, respect borne out of the shared experience of a successful British & Irish Lions tour two summers ago.
When Warren Gatland named his touring party to New Zealand in 2017 for the toughest Lions series of all against the back-to-back world-champion All Blacks, the head coach named 12 players likely to go toe-to-toe at St James’ Park when Leinster defend their title against Saracens, the team they succeeded as champions of Europe.
Together they helped earn a series draw with Steve Hansen’s world beaters, coming from behind following a first Test defeat at Eden Park to win the second Test in Wellington before honours were even back in Auckland in the finale.
Liam Williams was a Scarlets player then and has since joined Saracens, whose No.8 Billy Vunipola failed to make the tour due to injury. While Billy could not travel, younger brother Mako Vunipola did and forged a strong friendship with fellow prop Tadhg Furlong, the English loosehead and Irish tighthead who will provide one of the juiciest rivalries on display in Newcastle tomorrow evening.
There is admiration from both sides for the other’s qualities both as players and as men, although Furlong is keen to point out that any inside information on Vunipiola has been diminished by the fast-changing nature of elite professional rugby.
“Going against him in the scrum, the game has changed so much in terms of scrummaging within the last two years. What we were talking about on the Lions tour, in terms of what we wanted to achieve in the scrum and the way we went about it, is maybe not the case anymore,” Furlong said.
Mako is world class in what he does. He has had a few injury problems this year but he has come back and looked really fresh. His ability to attack the gainline, his ability to bring others into the game, his footwork, late at the line.
"He is a quality player, to be fair to him. Sarries use him in set-piece moves and he is a player I enjoy watching and have a tremendous amount of respect for.”
Vunipola is looking forward to their reunion but is under no illusions as to the challenge facing him in their literal head-to-head contest.
“He has obviously proved to be one of the best in the world, if not the best,” the Saracens front-rower said.
“That is why you play the game, you want to test yourself against the best. It is a great opportunity this weekend and hopefully we can try and nullify some of his impact, but you can only do so much. I am looking forward to a great match-up really.”
Vunipola may be two years Furlong’s senior at 28 years of age but he credits Furlong with showing him the possibilities for a prop beyond the set-piece and providing the motivation to improve his own game.
“If I am being honest, he surprised me in the way he was such a big guy and his set-piece stuff was solid, but around the park, I couldn’t believe how hard he worked.
“In my eyes, when I thought: ‘I think I am alright at this’. Then you see that and you are like: ‘Oh, no I am not’.
“So it kind of gives you a bit of motivation to push yourself and that is what you get with good players.
“That is one thing I take from those tours and being around those great players — you are always going to learn, it is just whether you want to,” he added.
“He has obviously got all the skills and sometimes you forget he is a prop forward. But I think he never takes away from his bread and butter, which is his set-piece. Then everything else is a bonus. He is very reliable as a player, and when he does come and train he always gives 100%.
“That is the sign of a great player in my eyes.”