It’s a mas­sive game for Sara­cens, says Vu­nipola

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - Rugby - AN­DREW BALDOCK Rugby writer

ENG­LAND for­wards Maro Itoje and Billy Vu­nipola are set to spear­head Sara­cens’ push for a place in this sea­son’s Heineken Cham­pi­ons Cup quar­ter-fi­nals.

Lock Itoje re­turns for to­mor­row’s Pool Three clash against Lyon after miss­ing the last five games due to a knee in­jury. His come­back also gives Eng­land boss Ed­die Jones a boost, with one of his key play­ers fea­tur­ing again just three weeks be­fore the Guin­ness Six Na­tions be­gins.

Num­ber eight Vu­nipola played against Premier­ship op­po­nents Sale Sharks last week – a first ap­pear­ance since breaking his arm dur­ing Sara­cens’ open­ing Cham­pi­ons Cup vic­tory over Glas­gow in Oc­to­ber.

And the Test match stars are now re­united for a game that will see group lead­ers Sara­cens con­firm a last-eight place if they win and Glas­gow lose against Cardiff Blues.

But even if Sara­cens have to wait an­other week, they can make sure of qual­i­fi­ca­tion by de­feat­ing Al­lianz Park vis­i­tors Glas­gow next week­end.

Vu­nipola and com­pany re­turn to Lyon, the French city where Sara­cens were crowned 2016 Eu­ro­pean cham­pi­ons, to face the only team in this sea­son’s tour­na­ment still with­out a point.

“It’s a mas­sive game,” Vu­nipola said. “When you win a Cham­pi­ons Cup or Premier­ship, the worst thing is that by the Sun­day it’s done, and that’s it. You can’t carry on talk­ing about it, say­ing ‘Oh, I re­mem­ber back in my day’, be­cause peo­ple just get bored of it.

“That’s the worst thing about win­ning cups. The next year, some­one else is the cham­pi­ons.

“Le­in­ster are (cham­pi­ons) now, and they are prob­a­bly not think­ing about Bil­bao (where they beat Rac­ing 92 in last sea­son’s fi­nal) any more. So for us, hope­fully, it is a step­ping stone for big­ger and bet­ter things this year.”

Sara­cens’ Premier­ship ti­tle ri­vals Ex­eter need to beat Cas­tres at home to­mor­row in their con­tin­ued pur­suit of a last-eight spot.

And the Chiefs wel­come back Eng­land in­ter­na­tional Jack Now­ell, who wears the num­ber 15 shirt on his first ap­pear­ance since suf­fer­ing a ham­string in­jury dur­ing this sea­son’s au­tumn Tests.

New­cas­tle must beat Mont­pel­lier in France this week­end, or their slim hopes of pro­gress­ing from Pool Five will evap­o­rate.

New­cas­tle rugby direc­tor Dean Richards told the Fal­cons’ of­fi­cial web­site: “We are go­ing over with the mind­set of giv­ing it our best and go­ing all out for the win. It will be a volatile at­mos­phere over there, it’s a dif­fer­ent rugby cul­ture.”

Bryn Len­non/ Getty Im­ages

Sara­cens and Eng­land star Billy Vu­nipola

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