'No one in the world better than him'
SPOTLIGHT: Mako Vunipola has labelled Vincent Koch the best tighthead in the world when he is on his game, as was the case last Saturday in Dublin when Saracens dismantled the Leinster scrum.
The Irish side had come into the Champions Cup quarter-final on the back of a 25-match winning streak, but they failed to absorb the pressure Saracens applied at the set-piece and the penalty count of 7-1 at the scrum was a massive factor in tipping the result the way of the London club.
Vunipola will now scrum down again with Koch as Saracens look to see off Racing in this Saturday’s semi-final in Paris and keep the defending champions on course to win their fourth European trophy in five seasons.
“The old notion is tighthead is probably the most important player in the team and it’s no different [now], the performance he [Koch] gave at the weekend, not only in the scrum but around the park,” said Vunipola at a semi-final media conference.
“When Vincent is in that kind of mood and going at teams I honestly feel there is no one better in the world than him. He knows that and he knows that he has got the backing of the people around him. When he is able to be confident to go out there and do his thing, it’s a happy day for us.”
Having taken great satisfaction in how the power battle at the scrum went in Ireland, Vunipola now hopes a similar platform can be laid in France to help get Saracens though to next month’s final on October 17. “You talk about head to head battles and winning those, it’s probably the only facet you can say head to head, taking on your opposite man in the scrum.
“You understand how massive that is to impose yourself as a pack, how much energy it gives, not only to you as the team and it takes away from the opposition… it made my job easier [in Dublin], I didn’t have to do much running. That was probably the best thing about it.”
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England and Lions international Vunipola is a bit of a rugby nerd, admitting he regularly delves into his trove of video to watch old games in his leisure time to remember how he felt about them.
It’s not just the wins, such as the 2016 final victory over Racing, that he will settle down to. The losses can be equally informative. “I watch games we have played in the past more just for my enjoyment than anything really. You watch to remember being in the game. It’s not just the games that we win either, there are losses that I watch to remember to what I felt that day.
“Sometimes I think back to that game (in 2016) and I have watched it back a lot as well. You watch and think how did we get away with playing like that. It was just the enjoyment, people were just appreciating each other… people were emotional. Saturday is a chance for us to go and make another memory.”
With just two more Premiership games remaining before their automatic relegation to the Championship, Saracens won’t be able to participate again in the Champions Cup until 2022/23 at the earliest. That prospect is added incentive for Vunipola and co to finish out this campaign on a high and leave everyone remembering them as one of the European greats.
“This is our last opportunity to win silverware – not just this year but for a while,” said Vunpila. “The Champions Cup is dear to us because we have had a few heartaches in it, but we have also had the delight of winning it… we just want to out there and make memories.
“I remember after we lost the Premiership and European finals in 2014, we spoke about wanting to be in the same league as Munster, Leinster and Toulouse, dynasties really. When people talk about the Champions Cup, 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 (in 2016) we wanted to go back… and it’s no different this time. We want to go out there and enjoy this moment with the people around us because we don’t know when we might get this chance again.”
By Liam Heagney, Rugbypass