Billy Vunipola marked his return from a knee injury by helping Saracens to make Alex Sanderson’s return to north London an unhappy one as they climbed back to second in the league.
The No 8, sidelined since limping off at Harlequins on 31 October, turned in a man-of-the-match performance that mixed power with a deft touch. He was involved in the game-breaking try when Sale were down to 14 men, and behind by 13 points, thanks to some bone‑headedness four minutes earlier from Byron McGuigan that had led to him being sent off for the second time in his career.
McGuigan was at boiling point when he was held up by Sean Maitland and denied a try, which the winger let him know about. He was even more wound up when the home centre Nick Tompkins denied AJ MacGinty a try shortly afterwards, and a brawl broke out in the in-goal area. McGuigan grabbed Tompkins from behind and threw him to the ground before going back for more and finally being sent off.
That paved the way for Vunipola’s big moment. He stepped inside the Sale defence close to their 22 after showing a classy dummy, then fired a 15-metre pass off his left hand to Maitland – who scored on the wing recently vacated by McGuigan.
Sanderson, the Sale director of rugby, said: “Byron trains at UFC on his time off, so maybe he just had a flashback of some sort of ultimate fighting session he’s done. I haven’t spoken to him. He’s a great lad, one of the hardest workers. The emotion, the occasion, the fact we hadn’t scored – I was feeling that too – probably got the better of him.”
Vunipola was out of favour with England and Eddie Jones even before he got injured but a few more performances like this one may force a rethink.
“He was really good again and it is a series of games he has put together for the club all season,” said Mark McCall. “He has been inspirational for us all the way through. Eddie has just asked him to keep on backing up performances and he certainly did that.”
With McGuigan off the pitch Sale actually grew into the game. They had lost their captain, Jono Ross, when he failed a head injury assessment in the first half but had Tom Curry, back from England duty, to come off the bench for him.
Manu Tuilagi, who did not play at all, was a bigger loss while Saracens had Owen Farrell and Jamie George sidelined after picking up injuries while with England.
Sanderson was at Saracens for 17 years as a player and coach before heading back to Sale – where he began his playing career – in January. He stayed at the home of his former Saracens colleague Kevin Sorrell on Friday night and the Sale squad were planning to go to a Wandsworth pub on Sunday night before a trip to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.
But they headed into the snow frustrated after second-half tries from Ben Curry and Raffi Quirke, re-enacting his support-line try for England against South Africa last weekend, gave them a taste of what might have been.
In between those two scores Saracens conjured a wonderful team effort finished off by Max Malins, for his eighth try in three league games, after a visionary turn and pass from Alex Goode. While Sale have a bye week to look forward to, Saracens know they need to offer more at Exeter next weekend.
“I thought physically we were very good in the first half and in every match we have played we have been patchy,” said McCall. “That is not the type of team we want to be.”