European Champions Cup: Brilliance of Billy Vunipola and Liam Williams reveals Saracens’ greatness

Two very different players changed the course of history on Saturday as Mark McCall’s men won their third European Champions Cup final in four years by crushing Leinster in familiar style.

Two weeks after comprehensively seeing off Munster in the semi-final, Saracens always held the ace cards over Leinster, even when Maro Itoje was sent to the sin bin in the first half and they slipped 10-0 behind.

Those aces came in the form of Billy Vunipola and Liam Williams.

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On a St James’ Park playing field stuffed full of top performers, the pair stood apart in producing two opposing moments of individual brilliance which provided a snapshot of how Saracens have become English rugby’s greatest ever club team.

First, with the scores locked at 10-10 and with 48 minutes played, Leinster surged for Saracens line. A try seemed inevitable. The ball was worked along the three-quarter line to Ireland international centre Garry Ringrose, a player long since heralded as Brian O’Driscoll’s heir apparent.

At 14st 8lb, Ringrose is almost a stone and a half heavier than Williams, but the Leinster centre did not know what hit him as Saracens wing timed his step out of the defensive line perfectly to stop his opponent in his tracks.


Premiership final: Exeter vs Saracens player ratings





1/30 <b>Exeter Chiefs:</b> Lachie Turner – 6 out of 10

2/30 Jack Nowell – 6 out of 10

3/30 Henry Slade 5 out of 10

4/30 Sam Hill – 5 out of 10

5/30 Olly Woodburn – 6 out of 10

6/30 Joe Simmonds – 5 out of 10

7/30 Nic White – 6 out of 10

8/30 Alex Hepburn – 6 out of 10

9/30 Luke Cowan-Dickie – 4 out of 10

10/30 Tomas Francis – 5 out of 10

11/30 Mitch Lees – 5 out of 10

12/30 Jonny Hill – 6 out of 10

13/30 Dave Ewers – 6 out of 10

14/30 Don Armand – 6 out of 10

15/30 Sam Simmonds – 7 out of 10

16/30 <b>Saracens:</b> Alex Goode – 9 out of 10

17/30 Sean Maitland – 6 out of 10

18/30 Alex Lozowski – 7 out of 10

19/30 Brad Barritt – 7 out of 10

20/30 Chris Wyles – 8 out of 10

21/30 Owen Farrell – 8 out of 10

22/30 Richard Wigglesworth – 8 out of 10

23/30 Mako Vunipola – 9 out of 10

24/30 Jamie George – 8 out of 10

25/30 Vincent Koch – 8 out of 10

26/30 Maro Itoje – 8 out of 10

27/30 George Kruis – 8 out of 10

28/30 Nick Isiekwe – 8 out of 10

29/30 Jackson Wray – 7 out of 10

30/30 Billy Vunipola – 8 out of 10

1/30 <b>Exeter Chiefs:</b> Lachie Turner – 6 out of 10

2/30 Jack Nowell – 6 out of 10

3/30 Henry Slade 5 out of 10

4/30 Sam Hill – 5 out of 10

5/30 Olly Woodburn – 6 out of 10

6/30 Joe Simmonds – 5 out of 10

7/30 Nic White – 6 out of 10

8/30 Alex Hepburn – 6 out of 10

9/30 Luke Cowan-Dickie – 4 out of 10

10/30 Tomas Francis – 5 out of 10

11/30 Mitch Lees – 5 out of 10

12/30 Jonny Hill – 6 out of 10

13/30 Dave Ewers – 6 out of 10

14/30 Don Armand – 6 out of 10

15/30 Sam Simmonds – 7 out of 10

16/30 <b>Saracens:</b> Alex Goode – 9 out of 10

17/30 Sean Maitland – 6 out of 10

18/30 Alex Lozowski – 7 out of 10

19/30 Brad Barritt – 7 out of 10

20/30 Chris Wyles – 8 out of 10

21/30 Owen Farrell – 8 out of 10

22/30 Richard Wigglesworth – 8 out of 10

23/30 Mako Vunipola – 9 out of 10

24/30 Jamie George – 8 out of 10

25/30 Vincent Koch – 8 out of 10

26/30 Maro Itoje – 8 out of 10

27/30 George Kruis – 8 out of 10

28/30 Nick Isiekwe – 8 out of 10

29/30 Jackson Wray – 7 out of 10

30/30 Billy Vunipola – 8 out of 10

After flinging Ringrose violently but legally to the floor, Williams then leapt to his feet before flinging his shoulders and arms over the ball to enact a jackal of such technical perfection, it will be shown on highlights reels for decades to come.

In a split second, Leinster’s attack was defused and the ball was cleared. The four-time champions rarely threatened Saracens line again.  In defence, Williams had saved the day.

“At our club Liam is celebrated as being the best player at clearing breakdowns out,” said Saracens skills coach Joe Shaw. 

“We use him as an example to other players because of how he gets rid of people off the ball.  People might not associate that with Liam but he is a very, very physical bloke. He’s the all-round package and has to be there or thereabouts as one of the best performers in the world.

“It’s not just Liam’s skill-set, the bloke is a fearless competitor.”

Williams magnificent defensive intervention was then matched by a piece of attacking play which it’s hard to imagine another player in the world pulling off. Vunipola, who at 6ft 2in and weighing well over 20 stone stands at the different end of the scale to 13 stone Williams, took four Leinster players over the line for the game’s decisive try.

With a scrum awarded five metres from Leinster’s line, everyone in the stadium knew what was coming, including Leinster’s defence but they were powerless to stop England’s giant No8 as Vunipola dipped, drove and surged for the line before reaching out with his right arm to touchdown.

It capped a phenomenal afternoon’s work for Vunipola, routinely jeered in reaction to his misguided decision to weigh into the Israel Folau homophobia row last month, but let his rugby do the talking in Newcastle to devastating effect.

Sixteen carries in the match and 65 metres gained made Vunipola statistically the most dangerous carrier on the field (although an honourable mention for captain Brad Barritt who also made 16 carries and 28 tackles) but it was his sheer physical presence which sent Leinster defenders into panic.

On this form, Vunipola’s ability to cross the gain line and turn slow ball into quick is unparalleled in the world game. When the really big game arrived, Vunipola delivered.

Williams, who could now finish the season with a Grand Slam, Six Nations Trophy, European Champions Cup final win and Gallagher Premiership trophy, proved once again he is a player for the very biggest stage.

Having almost single-handedly repelled England’s aerial bombardment in Cardiff in February he was magnificent once again in Saturday’s final and would surely now merit a place in a world XV picked on form over the past 12 months.

For Saracens, the collective is everything. From the scandalously undervalued Jackson Wray, who was outstanding again on Saturday, to their workhorse captain Brad Barritt, McCall’s team is a machine better oiled than any other produced in English club rugby history.

But in Williams and Vunipola they have two diamonds any team would cherish. On Saturday, they produced two moments which changed the course of history. 

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