Strong prop-osition - Mako hails Stevens partnership after ‘terrorising’ Quins
PUBLISHED: 16:37 26 March 2013 | UPDATED: 16:42 26 March 2013
PA Wire/Press Association Images
A modest Mako Vunipola was coy about whether his man-of-the-match display was his best in a Saracens shirt and instead hailed his prop partner Matt Stevens after they spearheaded a 27-12 victory over Premiership champions Harlequins on Sunday.
Both front row powerhouses led a pack that out-muscled their London rivals to brush them aside on the official opening of Sarries’ new Allianz Park stadium.
The victory saw the Hendon side extend their lead at the top of the Premiership to five points over second placed Leicester Tigers and eight points clear of the vanquished reigning champions in third.
The victors were far superior than the scoreline suggested with Quins rarely getting a sniff of the try-line and failing to take their few chances, thanks to some obdurate defending and powerful scrummaging.
In comparision Sarries were more clinical when the opportunities arose and Schalk Brits and Will Fraser crossed the whitewash either side of half time.
But asked if it was the best he’d fared better in a black and red shirt, Vunipola, one of a host of stars returning from international duty, said: “I don’t really know. To get a performance like that against a quality side like Quins is always great. I’m just happy to be back with Sarries.”
He was more forthcoming about former England tight-head Stevens, saying: “Matt has been playing really well in the last couple of matches. He’s shown his natural class.
“He’s not been playing as many games as he would do but he’s enjoying his rugby at the moment and I think you can tell with the way he’s getting on and terrorising in the scrum.”
After the game director of rugby Mark McCall was quick push the names of his props forward for British and Irish Lions selection, saying: “I think [coach] Warren Gatland will have been watching Vunipola.
“If they bring five or six props, a prop with a bit of X-factor is worth his weight in gold.”
He added: “[That also goes for] Matt Stevens who’s not been playing international rugby, but is available for the Lions and played pretty well as well.”
With ball in hand, Vunipola showed against Harlequins why he’s been an instant success for England after featuring in all of the Six Nations games to bring his tally of caps up to nine since bursting onto the scene in the Premiership this season.
An early bulldozing run saw it take four Quins defenders to stop him in his tracks, but it served to put his side on the front foot early on and they were only ever behind briefly for a couple of minutes as Owen Farrell and Nick Evans traded penalties.
Vunipola said: “It’s always nice to get ball in hand but, as a prop, you’re judged on your set-piece and I thought, overall, we did well against a strong pack and I think we’re going to pat ourselves on the back for that.”
He added: “We know that in big games you’ve got to get the first punch in and the start is always key so, for us, to get momentum and get on them we had to start quick. To get the break was nice but with the pressure we put on them, they struggled in that first ten minutes.”
He added; “It was a great team performance. We know Quins are a classy side and knew if they got momentum in attack they are a hard team to stop.
“I thought the boys stood up there with great defence from us and great intensity to get off the line and stop them.”
In the opposition front row was soon to be team-mate James Johnstone who will swap Quins for Saracens in the summer, arriving at Allianz Park with Vunipola’s brother Billy, from Saturday’s opponents Wasps.
“He’s a class player,” the England forward said of his Sarries-bound front row counterpart. “He’s a big key for them in the scrum and offers a lot more around the field as well. We are happy to sign him but he’s still a Quins player.”
While they battled at the set-piece, Vunipola was somewhat surprised at how little a threat Quins posed in attack.
“I think Quins will say they were a bit off their game but we know they are a class side. They had opportunities to finish but luckily our defence came out on top.
“We’ll take pride in that but we also know that they are going to come back stronger and if we face them again we know they are going to get a better performance.”
Saracens are currently preparing for Saturday’s trip to London Wasps with a camp in Verbier, Switzerland, and the squad flew out straight after the victory at the weekend.
“It’s just a team trip, nothing planned, just last-minute,” Vunipola, said, adding: “It’s just nice to get away and build memories with the squad we have.
“I think that’s a big part of our culture - to become good friends off the field as well. It tells out there [on the pitch] that we want to play for each other.”