Lyon 10-28 Saracens: Mako Vunipola inspires visitors to quarter finals of the Heineken Champions Cup

Another Mako Vunipola masterclass sent Saracens soaring on in Europe – top seeds and germinating spectacularly as others wither.

While other English clubs fade the two-time champions blossom. They are the only unbeaten team left in this competition, securing their quarter-final place for the eighth consecutive year, having only dropped two points so far.

Vunipola continued to defy the traditional role of a prop, providing the assist to two of the four tries, not that that shocked his captain Owen Farrell. 

 ‘Mako does that in training all the time,’ he said. ‘He picks his head up and plays what is in front of him, it’s no surprise. He’s always like that and backs it up with a bit of physicality as well.’

Director of rugby Mark McCall was delighted that Billy Vunipola came through his second game back after breaking his arm three times in 10 months.

‘Billy was on a different level as well,’ he said. ‘To come to Lyon and get a bonus point is massive for us and sets us up for next weekend with a huge game against Glasgow. We’re in a good position, in the quarter-finals. We want a home quarter-final now.’

Lyon might not have lost here in the league all season, scoring an average of 42 points per home win, but they have not faced a teak-tough defence such as this.

Saracens were their typically excitable selves in the first half – keeping the French to just an early Jonathan Wisniewski drop-goal until late on – but some of the tackles were high and right at the end of the half flanker Schalk Burger was lucky to escape sanction for a hit on Alexis Palisson which caught him round the neck.

Referee Andrew Brace reviewed, but decided it was not worth a card or a penalty. Back when officials were chucking out cards like confetti in the early European rounds it surely would have been yellow.

The hit dislodged the ball and a Lyon attack died. Saracens with the cushion of an 11-point half-time lead – Vunipola the star.

The old phrase says that forwards are the piano pushers and backs the piano players, but this England prop is shoves the right instruments into position then tinkles the ivories himself.

Two wonderful passes set up the first-half tries. Both showed Sarries’ patience. The first saw Tompkins jink past full-back Toby Arnold when Vunipola had stretched the defence with a fine tip-on pass to find his centre.

The second was even better. Billy Vunipola fizzed a pass to Alex Lozowski from a lineout, Tompkins took it on and then the next phase went to Mako Vunipola. He fixed the Lyon defence and flicked inside to Jackson Wray who charged through.

For a prop, for anyone, it was marvelous. Farrell kicked both conversions and Saracens were comfortable in the Stade de Gerland din.

Tompkins soon had his second – Saracens forwards drove a lineout, the 23-year-old burst from the back and scrambled in with three men clinging on his back. Farrell converted.

Serene progress was halted temporarily, though, when Maro Itoje gave away a dumb penalty – slapping the ball out of replacement scrum-half Charl McLeod’s hands illegally – and was sent to the sin-bin.

Immediately Lyon leveled the numbers on the field. Replacement prop Albertus Buckle was caught stamping on Will Skelton at a ruck and was yellow-carded too.

Normal service resumed from Saracens’ next turnover. Alex Goode picked a mazy line through a broken defence and fed the rapid Ben Spencer who sped in between the posts. Farrell kicked another conversion to the bonus-point score.

Finally, with 10 minutes left, Lyon had their try. Palisson skated in and then converted his score – but in the city of gastronomie and 14 Michelin-star restaurants the servings Lyon offered meant for bad reviews.

In their debut season dining at Europe’s top table they have looked like they do not know which piece of cutlery to use. Now they will want to ‘evite le Fanny’ as the French put it – a phrase emanating from petanque traditions where a loser who scores no points has to kiss the behind of a woman as punishment.

Null points so far, but Saracens have the most of any and a cast of talents to take them far further once more in the Champions Cup.

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