Vunipola free to face Clermont
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall believes common sense has prevailed after star-forward Billy Vunipola was cleared to play in Saturday's crunch European Champions Cup semi-final against Clermont.
Vunipola's availability had been in doubt after he was cited for allegedly striking Leicester's Mathew Tait during Saracens' 22-6 win at Allianz Park last weekend, but a three-man panel dismissed the case on Tuesday night.
The decision comes as a huge relief to Saracens, who will need all the talent at their disposal to overcome Clermont and make their second consecutive European Champions Cup final following last year's defeat to Toulon.
Vunipola has been Sarries' stand-out player in recent months and McCall, speaking a few hours before the decision, argued the forward's altercation with Tait had been a "rugby accident".
"We're very hopeful common sense will prevail," McCall said.
"Everyone can see it isn't intentional because there are enough camera angles to show that Billy's eyes are firmly on the ball the whole time.
"If it's not intentional was it reckless? Billy goes in in a very controlled fashion, he's decelerating into the contact.
"So there's no recklessness involved, it's just a rugby accident and then it became physics.
"Mathew Tait weighs 90kg and Billy weighs a bit more than that - it's just an accidental clash of heads, it's as straightforward and simple as that."
McCall added: "Billy saw an opportunity and he went for it, you can't stop rugby players acting on those kinds of instincts."
Vunipola's availability boosts Sarries' chances of avoiding the kind of end-of-season anti-climax that has hurt the club in recent campaigns.
McCall's men looked destined for major silverware in 2014 after hammering Clermont 46-6 in the Heineken Cup semi-final and finishing nine points clear at the top of the Aviva Premiership, but defeats to Toulon and Northampton saw the club go away empty-handed.
McCall said Vunipola took those disappointments particularly hard.
"The disappointment for him at the end of the last season, he wore it as hard as anybody because he emptied his tank, in both finals he gave everything he got," McCall said.
"When you give absolutely everything it just makes the pain a bit more acute.
"It probably took Billy a little bit of time to bounce back from that.
"It's been post-autumn he's kind of got over things and brought his game to a whole new level, and long may it continue."
One person who was in line to profit from Vunipola's absence was talented second-rower Maro Itoje, who joined Saracens at 14 and followed Vunipola to Harrow School.
The 20-year-old, who captained Sarries to victory in the LV= Cup, was rewarded for a number of eye-catching displays with a new contract on Tuesday and could still feature at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard this weekend.
"Would I be confident throwing him into a game like this? Yes," McCall said.
"He's another success story for our academy, which doesn't get enough praise and credit.
"He's one of those and we're hugely excited about him. He's got a real hunger to get better.
"He's not a kid who's just happy to be here, he wants to learn, he wants to get better and it's wonderful to have that sort of young person at the club."