Mako Vunipola spends part of his leisure time watching reruns of old Saracens matches. One of his favourites is the 2016 European Champions Cup final against Racing 92, Saturday’s semi-final opponents in Paris, but a clue to his club’s ability to rise to an occasion lies in his choice of games he has been a part of.
“I watch matches we lost so I can remember what I felt that day,” said the England prop, who despite playing his first match in five weeks last Saturday had a prominent role in the quarter-final victory over Leinster in Dublin that ended the Irish side’s 25-match winning run.
It was that aversion to failure that sustained Saracens when Leinster reduced the holders’ 22-3 interval lead to five points with 18 minutes to go. Having lost 10 players during the lockdown to either permanent moves or loans and without the suspended Owen Farrell, Sarries had few experienced options on the bench, but at the point the matched looked like slipping from their control, they regrouped under their posts and the outcome was a seventh Champions Cup semi-final in eight seasons.
“The Champions Cup is dear to us and we know it holds the last opportunity to win silverware for a while,” said Vunipola, reflecting on the club’s relegation to the Championship for breaches of the Premiership’s salary cap. “We have had a few heartaches in it and we have had the delight of winning the trophy. You want to go out there and make memories. We want to enjoy the moment in Paris because we do not know when we will get the chance again.”
Racing have lost two finals in the past four years, to Saracens and Leinster, but on the wall of their gym is a large poster of the Champions Cup trophy. Their quarter-final victory at Clermont Auvergne last weekend highlighted their determination to follow the likes of Munster, Leinster and Saracens by turning European heartache into silver.
“It will be a step up from Dublin,” said Vunipola. “They looked physically up for it last week and it will be no different this time. We know it will be difficult to peak again. We had a long time to prepare for Leinster and focused on our mentality. The challenge now is not to reach the same level but climb again. When people talk about the best teams in Europe, we want to be part of that conversation.”
Saracens are even less fancied on Saturday than they were when they last met Racing in January in the final group match a few days after they learned they would be relegated and the squad broken up. Vunipola scored one of their three tries on an afternoon when they overcame an interval deficit and the first-half dismissal of Will Skelton to qualify for the quarter-finals.
“We kept it simple and everyone had to make up the work for the player who had gone,” said Vunipola. “It was not easy against a great side like Racing and while it gives you confidence going into the semi-final, this weekend will be totally different. It will be tougher: Racing have some big boys up front and out wide, big hard runners and a bit of magic in their ball players. We have to take them on up front and take away as much space as possible.”
The forward clash will be unremitting with both sides relishing confrontation, but they each have a playmaking outside-half in Finn Russell and Alex Goode, two players adept at creating much out of nothing. “Finn is a great crack,” said Racing’s Ireland second row, Donnacha Ryan. “He gets on with it and I love his attitude. He bluffs that he never does any work, but he trained the house down pre-season: there must be some sort of tour at the end of the year! He is always up for a challenge and is not shy about contact. I cannot speak highly enough of him.
“Goode is an underrated player. His game appreciation is fantastic: as a full-back, he enjoys more space and he is able to read defences and he exploits that ability at 10. We will have to make sure our defensive systems are airtight. I do not know why he has not played more for England: caps are all about one person’s opinion and all he can do is keep playing well for Saracens. I am sure he feels a bit aggrieved but he is showing his professionalism.”
Racing will look for Russell to attack off quick ball. Saracens successfully slowed down Leinster’s possession and will need to do so again.
Vunipola who, like Goode, Brad Barritt, Richard Wigglesworth, Jamie George, Jackson Wray and his brother Billy played in the 2104 final defeat to Toulon in Cardiff says replaying such setbacks spurs him on. “One of my best memories was the 2016 final against Racing,” he said. “I have watched the match a lot and other than wondering how we won playing like that, what you notice at the end is the relief and joy of everyone, people appreciating each other. It was emotional and we now have the chance to create another moment.”