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Vunipola reprieve gives Saracens hope that lightning can strike twice against Clermont

16 Apr | BY Betway | MIN READ TIME |
Vunipola reprieve gives Saracens hope that lightning can strike twice against Clermont

England forward cleared of foul play but Nathan Hughes case highlights need for tweak to club rugby's disciplinary system.

Owen Farrell’s return to action in Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-finals would ordinarily represent major news. The England fly-half is a big character in the English game, one of Stuart Lancaster’s leaders in the national set-up.

For Saracens to have him back, if only on the bench, for their last-four clash with Clermont Auvergne in St Etienne, is a significant boost to the morale of the club, as well as to the strength of their matchday squad. He has spent 10 weeks on the sidelines and missed England’s entire Six Nations campaign.

Yet the news almost passed unnoticed, coinciding as it did with Billy Vunipola’s disciplinary hearing in London on Tuesday evening. Vunipola also plays for England and, unlike Farrell, enjoyed a stormer of a Six Nations. If he wasn’t England’s best player then he was certainly close. And since returning to his club he has been simply outstanding, a force of nature.

So it was with considerable consternation that Saracens learned on Monday that their No.8 had been cited for an alleged headbutt on Leicester fullback Mathew Tait during a Premiership match last weekend in which, as is becoming customary, Vunipola was man of the match.

“As a club we have respect for the disciplinary process but at the same time we are surprised,’ was Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall’s diplomatic reaction. “He’s been charged with a strike to the head. It’s got to be intentional but everyone can see that it isn’t.”

That from a man facing his biggest test of the season, a game against a French side which made mincemeat of Premiership leaders Northampton in the last round; an opponent who last lost a European tie at home in 2008 for goodness sake.

Yet McCall’s defence never came across as being built on expediency. He saw an injustice in the citing which needed to be put right.

“It wasn’t intentional and there was no recklessness involved,” the Ulsterman said. “It was just a rugby accident and then it became physics. Mat Tait weighs around 90 kilograms and Billy weighs a bit more than that. It was just an accidental clash of heads and we feel it was as straightforward as that.”

They were confident in their position but what made Saracens nervous was that fresh in the memory was the case of Nathan Hughes, a No.8 equally influential to his club (Wasps) as Vunipola is to his. 

Hughes was banned for his side’s European quarter-final against Toulon after colliding with George North in a match against Northampton. The Saints wing was left unconscious and won’t play again this month.

Hughes was cleared of intent but nailed for being reckless. At least until he appealed and was cleared of all guilt. Unfortunately for the player and for Wasps, that only came after they had been beaten by Toulon.

It turned out all right for Vunipola. The RFU panel agreed with Saracens and Billy will play in St Etienne. But out of these two cases has come a sense that justice has only been partially served and that a tweak to the disciplinary process is needed.

Quite simply, allow players to play pending an appeal. That way you avoid the scenario which so hurt Wasps and could have had a similar impact on Saracens. In both instances they got the right outcome in the end but what English rugby needs to avoid is casualties along the way.