Mako Vunipola and his fellow Saracens will set out on Saturday to scale another European peak, driven by a desire to enter the pantheon before they exit the Premiership.
Mark McCall’s side conquered Dublin last weekend and now they are in Paris, ready to claim another prized scalp when they take on Racing 92 in a seismic Heineken Champions Cup semi-final at La Defense Arena.
There can be pride before the impending fall. Saracens are braced for relegation as punishment for salary cap offences, but having harnessed their potent mood of defiance to shock Leinster, they have their sights set on joining an exclusive continental club before accepting their fate.
Mako Vunipola and his fellow Saracens will set out on Saturday to scale another European peak
Leinster and Toulouse lead the roll of honour with four titles in Europe’s blue-riband event. Saracens want to elevate themselves to that category, after winning the trophy in 2016, 2017 and 2019. It has been a target for six years, since they were beaten by Toulon in the 2014 final.
‘I remember after we lost the Premiership final and the European final in 2014, we spoke about wanting to be in the same league as teams like Leinster and Toulouse,’ said Mako Vunipola, the England prop who returned from injury to play a key role in the Dublin victory. ‘Those are the sort of teams people think of as the best in Europe and we wanted to be in that conversation.
‘We knew we had to cross that big hurdle of winning it for the first time but when we did that we wanted to keep doing it. Now we want to enjoy this moment because we don’t know when we might get this chance again.’
Mark McCall’s side conquered Dublin last week and now they are ready to claim another scalp
The crux of Saracens’ challenge is to rise to the same heights of intensity, aggression and commitment as they did to overwhelm Leinster for a famous victory founded on defensive authority and set-piece dominance.
For the large England contingent in their ranks — Mako and Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Elliot Daly — there are echoes of the World Cup last year. So much of their preparation and energy was channelled into beating the All Blacks that they found they could not reach those levels again a week later in the final.
Despite a recent exodus, Saracens have the personnel to beat Racing, but only if the players can lift themselves for a repeat performance. Vunipola knows that is not a given.
‘It is difficult,’ said the loosehead, about that mental challenge. ‘We had a long time before Leinster so we prepped a lot for it and that allowed us to focus on our mentality. But you want to be in the position where you have to get back up again. You want to be in these knockout games.
The win has restored pride in the club following the salary cap scandal which rocked the sport
‘This is our last opportunity to win silverware. Not just this year but for a while. The Champions Cup is dear to us because we’ve had a few heartaches in it but we’ve also had the delight of winning it. And some boys are leaving who have been big players for us so we want to make more memories with them.’
The men he is referring to are veterans Brad Barritt, Saracens’ warrior captain, and Richard Wigglesworth, the former England scrum-half, who are moving on. It took an epic effort to see off Leinster and will take a similar feat if a Saracens side once again without England captain Owen Farrell are to trump one of France’s superpower sides, who have European pedigree as losing finalists in 2016 and 2018.
The first of those defeats came against Saracens in Lyon, when seven Farrell penalties propelled McCall’s men to their first Champions Cup triumph. More recently, these teams clashed in the pool stages of this campaign, claiming a victory apiece.
For all the artistic threat posed by Finn Russell, Simon Zebo and Teddy Thomas, Vunipola knows that this game will be decided by whether Saracens can cope with the hosts’ physicality. ‘They have a lot of ball players,’ he said, ‘but we are under no illusions about how physically up for it we need to be.’
It is the ultimate illustration of the spirit, unity and resilience of the club amid the scandal
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