Saracens receive double boost ahead of crunch Investec Champions Cup clash

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 12: Saracens player Billy Vunipola arrives prior to the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Newcastle Falcons and Saracens at Kingston Park on November 12, 2023 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Saracens' Billy Vunipola is free for Investec Champions Cup action against Connacht after his red card was overturned
Saracens’ Billy Vunipola is free for Investec Champions Cup action against Connacht after his red card was overturned

Saracens have been buoyed by positive updates on the availability of Billy Vunipola and Ben Earl as they prepare for a do-or-die match in the Investec Champions Cup this weekend.

No8 Vunipola has been cleared to face Connacht on Saturday after the red card that he incurred during last week’s defeat at the Bulls was overturned by an independent panel.

England teammate Earl, a breakout star of England’s run to the World Cup semi-finals, is also set to return earlier than expected from a knee injury that required surgery.

The Premiership champions can ill afford another setback in the second fixture of a curtailed European pool stage featuring just four rounds of games.

Vunipola was sent off early in the second half of Saracens’ 27-16 loss in Pretoria for making dangerous contact with the head of Bulls forward Cameron Hanekom.

He argued at a disciplinary hearing this week that he had committed a foul but that it did not warrant a red card, and the panel agreed.

“It was good news for us and probably the right decision,” said Sarries rugby director Mark McCall. “The panel heard and saw all the evidence and decided it was a yellow card, not red, and we are grateful to have Billy available immediately.”

Tournament organiser European Professional Club Rugby said: “The committee determined that Vunipola had committed an act of foul play. However, it decided that there was insufficient force in the contact to Hanekom’s head to warrant a red card, and the red card was therefore overturned. Vunipola is free to play immediately.”

Flanker Earl, meanwhile, is likely to be fit for the second half of the pool stage in January, when Saracens are due to face Bordeaux Begles and Lyon. 

The 25-year-old broke down during the warm-up for last month’s Premiership match against Harlequins but his recovery is ahead of schedule and he could even play this month.

“Hopefully, we are going to have Ben back quite soon,” McCall said. “I think Newcastle [on 30 December] is a possibility for Ben, probably Leicester the week after.”

McCall added that he would look to give other players who featured at the World Cup some rest to avoid losing any more of his stars to the treatment room.

“We are having to play a few players more than we would like because of those injuries,” he said. 

“Hopefully, we are going to have Nick Isiekwe back quite soon, but some of the others like Callum Hunter-Hill and Tom Willis are a little further away.

“Alex Lozowski is out for the vast majority of the season, but we have still got good players and good personnel.

“We are playing European Cup matches now and nobody wants a break, but we will find some more time for some of those players who played quite a lot of time in the World Cup.”


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